It’s hard to sex up Brecht. His plays are long, episodic and didactic, and the modus operandi behind his famously alienating staging techniques is to keep audiences mentally and morally alert — we’re not talking light entertainment here. But this premiere staging of David Harrower’s supple new translation of “The Good Soul of Szechuan” impressively manages to stay faithful to Brecht’s principles while providing an engaging, thought-provoking evening — though one not without its longueurs. While headliner Jane Horrocks (“Absolutely Fabulous,” “Little Voice”) will doubtless draw auds, the star is helmer Richard Jones’ overall production concept.
The production is news in theater circles because Harrower (“Blackbird”) has translated and updated a lesser-known draft of Brecht’s text known as the Santa Monica version (Brecht wrote it while living in Los Angeles in the mid-1940s, in exile from Hitler’s Germany). The German-language text has good-hearted prostitute Shen Te (Horrocks) getting involved in the opium trade; Harrower moves the action to contemporary China, making her a heroin dealer.
The Brechtian principle of disorientation starts as auds enter the Young Vic space, which set designer Miriam Buether has transformed into a simulated cement factory, giving it a purposely thrown-together feeling by using unpainted wood boards for the stage backdrop and audience seating area. Dust hangs in the air, bright fluorescent light shines throughout the auditorium, and uniformed workers wearing surgical masks trudge around like drones.
Banners and signs in Chinese characters festoon the stage; a loud horn blast starts the action. Everyone in the mixed-race cast wears black wigs, further suggesting the Asian setting without attempting to claim documentary authenticity.
All of these overtly theatrical techniques support and enhance the play’s structure: There is a “once upon a time” feeling, but this is a dystopia, not a fairyland. Our narrator is the grubby water seller Yang, daringly but effectively played by Adam Gillen as if he were developmentally disabled, throwing himself into telling the story with a mixture of childlike pride and unnerving emotional availability. He finds himself in charge of three gods — here conceived as frumpy middle-aged types in cheap-looking wool and polyester — who have heard the world has gone downhill and arrive in search of any remaining good people.
Only Shen Te will take them in for the night, and she is rewarded with enough cash to give up the skin trade and buy a tobacco shop. But Shen Te can’t survive in the capitalist world, as neighbors take advantage of her generosity. Under pressure, she creates a male alter ego, Shui Ta, who becomes a drug lord. Thus Brecht drives his Marxist message home: not even the combined power of Shen Te’s two selves can defeat capitalist society’s mendacity.
Jones’ masterful ability to create stage pictures and the company’s strong ensemble playing compel attention, and occasional musical numbers add further interest. However, all this cannot override a slightly leaden feeling emanating from the self-conscious predictability of the story and structure.
Horrocks is an intense presence with a distinctive, quirky vocal quality, but her performance feels a bit too scaled-down for this highly theatricalized approach. She is empathatic and likeable as Shen Te and lovably over-masculinized as Shui Ta, but she does not command the stage as she should.
It’s exciting to see an important historical play staged so innovatively and energetically, but it seems uncertain whether this prod will convince those beyond the already-converted that Brecht is a playwright for today.