×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Good Soul of Szechuan

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.

With:
Shen Te, Shui Ta - Jane Horrocks Yang Sun - John Marquez Wang - Adam Gillen Mrs. Shin - Linda Dobell God 1 - Susan Porrett God 2 - Michelle Wade God 3 - Steven Beard

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.

The Good Soul of Szechuan

Young Vic Theater, London; 450 seats; £21.50 $440 top

Production: A Young Vic presentation of a play in two acts by Bertolt Brecht, translated by David Harrower. Literal translation, Laura Gribble. Directed by Richard Jones.

Creative: Sets, Miriam Buether; costumes, Nicky Gillibrand; lighting, Paule Constable; original music and sound, David Sawer; musical director, David Osmond; movement director, Linda Dobell; production stage manager, Julia Reid. Opened May 14, 2008. Reviewed May 16. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Cast: Shen Te, Shui Ta - Jane Horrocks Yang Sun - John Marquez Wang - Adam Gillen Mrs. Shin - Linda Dobell God 1 - Susan Porrett God 2 - Michelle Wade God 3 - Steven BeardWith: Gareth Farr, Shiv Grewal, Sam O'Mahony-Adams, David Osmond, Sophie Russell, Liza Sadovy, Tom Silburn.

More Legit

  • ZZ Top, Caesars Entertainment Team on

    ZZ Top, Caesars Team for Jukebox Musical 'Sharp Dressed Man' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees ZZ Top and Caesars Entertainment are developing “Sharp Dressed Man,” a jukebox musical set to open next year in Las Vegas featuring the band’s greatest hits. Members Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard are all serving as executive producers. “Sharp Dressed Man” is described as an “outrageous, [...]

  • Williamstown Theater Festival 2016 season

    Marisa Tomei Starring in Broadway Revival of 'The Rose Tattoo'

    Marisa Tomei will star in the Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo.” The Oscar-winning actress will play Serafina, a part previously performed by the likes of Maureen Stapleton and Anna Magnani. It’s also a role that Tomei is familiar with, having starred in a Williamstown Theatre Festival production in 2016. “The Rose Tattoo” [...]

  • White Pearl review

    London Theater Review: 'White Pearl'

    Playwright Anchuli Felicia King dismantles the Asian market in this misfiring satire at London’s Royal Court Theatre. “White Pearl” makes a case that those seeking to make inroads into the Far East, perceiving a new El Dorado, are no better that colonial conquistadors of an earlier age — and entirely unequipped to understand the specifics [...]

  • Signature Theatre Celebrates Millionth Subsidized Ticket

    Signature Theatre Offers $35 Subsidized Tickets, Celebrates Millionth Sold

    Just the other night, a Manhattan cab driver told Signature Theatre executive director Harold Wolpert that he couldn’t afford to take his girlfriend to a show. In response, Wolpert motioned to his theater, saying that they offer $35 subsidized tickets. The driver said he’d try it out. “It was a great moment,” Wolpert said. “We’re [...]

  • SOCRATES The Public Theater

    Tim Blake Nelson Waxes Philosophical on Writing a Play About Socrates

    Despite Tim Blake Nelson’s knack for playing folksy characters in films such as “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” in his soul lurks the heart of a classicist. Nelson, who stars in HBO’s “Watchmen” series this fall, has also penned the play “Socrates,” now running at New York’s Public Theater through June 2. Doug Hughes directs, [...]

  • TodayTix - Brian Fenty

    TodayTix Banks $73 Million to Boost Theater and Arts Ticketing App

    TodayTix, a Broadway-born mobile ticketing start-up, is looking to expand into a bigger global media and transaction enterprise with a capital infusion of $73 million led by private-equity firm Great Hill Partners. The investment brings TodayTix’s total capital raised to over $100 million, according to CEO and co-founder Brian Fenty. Part of the new funding [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content