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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Good Soul of Szechuan
Young Vic Theatre Summer 2008

The major attraction of this Bertolt Brecht play is that it's there at all. Once - say, 40 or 50 years ago - Brecht was hailed as one of the major dramatists of the century and his plays were everywhere. But he's fallen out of fashion, and the opportunity to see one of his plays is rare enough to be an event.

Like much of his work, The Good Soul (which you may know as The Good Woman Of or The Good Person Of) is a parable, part strained whimsy, part overt moral lecture.

Some minor gods visit earth, and the only good person they meet is the prostitute Shen Te. They reward her, but as soon as word is out that she has money, every leech and conman for miles around descends on her, and she is too nice to fight them off. So she invents a cousin Shui Ta (herself in a man's suit) who is as hard-nosed as she is soft-hearted.

And so the play goes - Shen Te is overrun by free-loaders, Shui Ta kicks them out. Shen Te falls in love with a scoundrel, Shui Ta exposes him. Shen Te is pregnant and abandoned, Shui Ta becomes a drug dealer to provide for her.

The moral - the good person is lost in a cruel world - is made quickly and then just repeated through the play, both in plot and in overt commentary.

A half-century ago, with most British and American drama committed to domestic realism, Brecht's deliberate simplicity and shallowness seemed a breath of fresh air. But now that the novelty has worn off, it is up to anyone reviving his plays to find ways of showing - or making it seem that - there's more to them than the surface.

Some directors do it by building on the few bits of realism or character depth that Brecht let slip through - that's why Mother Courage remains one of his most successful dramas - or by finding ways to exploit his open theatricality inventively, as with some revivals of The Threepenny Opera.

It may be that The Good Soul just doesn't provide much raw material for either approach, or that the director of this revival, Richard Jones, just couldn't find it.

Despite virtually rebuilding the Young Vic auditorium to create a new environment for the play, and placing bits of the action all around the house, he can't really make the simple story resonate or even keep a tight hold on our interest once it starts repeating itself.

Jane Horrocks brings an appropriate air of fragility to the central role, and looks appropriately out of her depth as Shen Te and desperate as Shui Ta, but she never for a minute makes you believe that you are seeing anything but that actress from the telly.

Adam Gillen provides some solidity in the chorus-like role of the water-seller, but John Marquez's bloke-ish seducer makes no concession to even the pretence that we are in China. David Sawer provides new music for Brecht's songs, but it takes more than having them sung by actors who can't sing to produce the Brechtian sound.

Drama students will want to take this increasingly rare opportunity to see what all the fuss about Brecht was about, but they may come away still wondering.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Good Soul of Szechuan - Young Vic 2008