The world of the Szechuan slums engulfs the audience as, through Miriam Buether’s design, the Young Vic has once again been transformed to accommodate a new production.
The entire auditorium has become a wooden factory, complete with the musty scent of woodchip lingering in the air. As the audience enters across the stage, a dirge of a scale is banged out repetitively on a piano and mindless workers in dirty pink jumpsuits, all orifices covered against poisonous intrusion, monotonously go about their repetitive duties.
The Szechuan of Brecht’s play is a place where people struggle to get by. The rich exploit the poor, who fight simply to find food and shelter. It is an image drawn into focus by the recent earthquake in the Chinese province, for which a collection was taken last night.
Three gods, who, in twin sets and suits resemble a middle-aged outing to a National Trust property, have come to Earth to find a good person. Only the prostitute Shen Te, played by Jane Horrocks, will give them shelter, so to help her ambition to be good the divinities leave her with a wad of cash. Of course, being good in an imperfect world is not as easy as it should be, for people start to take advantage. Shen Te must be saved from herself, which is when her male ‘cousin’ Shui Ta appears.
Brecht’s plays, some of the most influential of the 20th century, were written to engage the audience in intellectual and political debate, and The Good Soul Of Szechuan is no different.
At the centre of the plot lies the question of goodness and how one can be truly good and moral in a world where the less scrupulous will trample on the slightest sign of weakness. The gods are constantly trying to escape from the earthly world which sees them becoming more and more dishevelled as the play progresses, as their relevance to the world and the morality by which people live seeps away.
Horrocks gets the opportunity to exhibit a range of emotions as both Shen Te and alter-ego Shui Ta; naïve and worthy as the first, world-hardened and forceful as the second. Though hers is clearly the central performance of the piece, Adam Gillen, as water seller Wang, who is determined to impress the gods, gives a memorably twitchy, nerve-filled performance full of joints turned at unnatural angles.
Amid the action, songs are thrown in with music by David Sawer. Many of the tunes are knowingly discordant and uncomfortable to listen to. This, of course, is entirely appropriate for a piece pointing out the impossibility of absolute goodness in an imperfect world.