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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Good Soul of Szechuan

You can do it. Just be good and everything will be fine.— First God
The Good Soul of Szechuan
Jane Horrocks as Shen Te
(Photo: Keith Pattison)
Bertolt Brechtís rather stultifying play The Good Soul of Szechuan gets an illuminating production at an unrecognisable Young Vic. I was impressed by the design, the splendid performances and the direction but I wish that all this effort had been directed at a more worthy piece of writing. The impact of the entrance is memorable. We are shown into an auditorium where the usual background walls have been masked in plywood, where workers, capped, masked and booted, trudge, humping bags of cement in relentless hard labour onto a conveyer belt. The dust rises and asthmatics in the audience start to wheeze as the rest of us picture the futility of human existence when such continuous, unrelenting toil is demanded.

The story is that of three gods who have descended to earth to find a really good person. They have a lot of difficulty until they are led to the house of a prostitute Shen Tei (Jane Horrocks). The gods reward her with the gift of money which she uses to open a tobacconist. Unfortunately, with her new found assets an attraction, every freeloader in town descends on her and abuses her kindness. She is also courted by a pilot, Yang Sun (John Marquez). In order to rid herself of these hangers on, Shen Te recruits her tough minded cousin, Shui Ta (also Jane Horrocks) to frighten them off. Shui Ta is in fact a disguised Shen Te. The gods return to earth and Shen Te tells them how impossible she has found it to be a good person in such a cruel and wicked world and how she had to pretend to be her evil cousin in order to stop the poor, the needy and the criminal taking everything she had and how her business was now based on heroin. The final image is of the gods telling her to carry on being good as she is trapped inside a glass box and desperately stretching up to try to reach them as they depart.

Jane Horrocks takes on the twin roles of Shen Te and Shui Ta and instead of using a mask, puts on a black suit over her feminine clothes and a black hat to change personality into her harder hearted cousin. She gives a remarkable performance as both the trusting innocent and tough minded cousin. Her performance of the songs seems sorely out of tune but this is probably down to their e-melodic composition. The wedding scene is the best of all when Shen Te realises that her groom will not go ahead with the marriage until her cousin arrives with the extra money he is expecting. I liked too the strangely creepy performance of Adam Gillen as Wang the Water Carrier with his fingers held out stylistically as if he is crippled. John Marquez is sufficiently unscrupulous as the mercenary pilot targetting Shen Teís wealth and Liza Sadovy is chilling as his grasping mother, Mrs Yang. I enjoyed John Marquezís song at the wedding about the hopelessness of existence, "Pigs Will Fly" with the rest of the cast wearing pig noses. The three gods (Susan Porrett, Michele Wade, Steven Beard) are played as some 1950s civil servants or committee worthy types as they judge those on earth, making their entrance by walking in backwards and popping into peopleís homes through an assortment of tall, grey locker doors.

Richard Jonesí production is visually memorable but I continue to be puzzled by the validity of the Brechtian message outside the political context of Europe in the 1940s. David Harrower has gone back to a version of this play from the Brecht archive and previously unpublished. This is the one sometimes known as the Santa Monica version which was staged at Greenwich Theatre in the late 1970s. .

The Good Soul of Szechuan
Written by Bertolt Brecht
In a new version by David Harrower
Directed by Richard Jones

Starring: Jane Horrocks
With: Steven Beard, Linda Dobell, Gareth Farr, Adam Gillen, Shiv Grewal, Merveille Lukeba, John Marquez, Sam O'Mahony-Adams, David Osmond, Susan Porrett, Sophie Russell, Liza Sadovy , Tom Silburn, Michelle Wade
Design: Miriam Buether
Lighting: Pasule Constable
Music and Sound: David Sawer
Costume: Nicky Gillibrand
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7928 6363
Booking to 21st June 2008
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 14th May 2008 performance at The Young Vic, The Cut, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo or Southwark)
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