The Good Soul of Szechuan

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Director: Richard Jones; Young Vic, London until 28 June

Three gods are travelling through China, looking for a good person - so far, without success. In Szechuan province the kind-hearted prostitute Shen Te takes them in for the night. In return they give her over $1,000. She buys a little tobacco shop, but unemployed and homeless people at once begin arriving and taking advantage of her generosity. So gentle, loving Shen Te disguises herself as a fictitious male cousin, ruthless and hard-hearted Shui Ta, who protects her by turning out the hangers-on.

Between them, Shen Te and Shui Ta try to cope with their complex situation. Should Shen Te marry a rich barber, who would provide more funds for her to help the desperate? Or should she believe a young pilot, with whom she falls in love and who says he needs $500 to get a job in Beijing?

Bertold Brecht's play breaks with established dramatic convention to create a highly political theatre. Shen Te's conflicts are not the result of her individual psychology, but the dilemma of a person trying to be good in a capitalist society where gentleness and love expose you to danger. The audience is not to identify with her as if she were a real person, or forget they are in a theatre. Instead the drama leads you to question the characters' actions and ask what else they could have done.

So you reach your seat by walking through the set, as actors carry about sacks of cement in a Chinese factory. At the start of the second half, theatre staff climb up and down ladders getting the stage ready. The gods are thoroughly bourgeois - exhibiting pomposity, spite and cowardice in varying proportions - and all wear slightly ludicrous wigs. Indeed, no one's costume consists of clothes a living person could wear.

These devices combine to wonderful effect with the subtlety of Brecht's writing. Lack of money doesn't make his characters saintly - it restricts their choices, and often makes them brutal and callous. Yet they are neither monsters nor victims to be pitied: they make their way as best they can through a world they do not control. They risk relationships that may bring disaster: women fall in love with men who may be exploiting them; parents act with inhuman selfishness to preserve their beloved, vulnerable children. None of these dilemmas and contradictions can be resolved within the play, only by creating a new and different society where Shen Te and Shui Ta can be one whole person.

All in all, this is a superb staging of a classic socialist play. Jane Horrocks is excellent as Shen Te/Shui Ta, but every aspect of the production is worthy of praise, from the lighting to the wonderfully unmusical songs. Get a ticket if you can - if you're under 26, they only cost a tenner.