The setting for Bertolt Brecht’s great Marxist parable The Good Soul of Szechuan is the capital city of the Chinese province currently decimated by Monday’s earthquake. Three gods descend from heaven to find a good person whose existence will justify the world continuing.
What they find is misery, poverty, homelessness and despair. Only Jane Horrocks as the prostitute Shen Te offers them shelter. They give her money she uses to start a tobacco shop which is then overrun by spongers and drug addicts.
Shen Te’s goodness – the “soul” label instead of the usual “person” is a fair rendition of Brecht’s “mensch” - is rewarded with an accusation of killing her cousin and alter ego, the ruthless capitalist Shui Ta.
The audience enters a reconfigured auditorium which is a balsa wood-panelled cement factory. This striking design “statement” by Miriam Buether is then left unexplored for the rest of the evening in Richard Jones’s production, as the workers have to inhabit all the other characters; perhaps the factory closed down.
For the second night running, Brecht following Rattigan, the London theatre anatomises a relationship between a socially conflicted heroine and a wasted, under-employed aeroplane pilot. And the scene where Horrocks promises to be a tigress for her unborn son while a vagrant rummages through a rubbish bin is as moving as anything in The Deep Blue Sea.
The new text by David Harrower is based on a literal translation by Laura Gribble, but the overall impact is far less persuasive than Deborah Warner’s 1989 National production with Fiona Shaw, which also used the opium theme from the Brecht archive; here, heroin is the more destructive, and socially disruptive, drug of choice.
David Sawer’s music cheekily uses “Chopsticks” in its harsh, barebones arrangements for piano and trumpet. The famous wedding song of the moon being green cheese before things improve is recast as “pigs might fly” and well discharged by John Marquez as the desperate, deceitful pilot.
Jane Horrocks switches brilliantly between a girlish Shen Te and a gangsterish Shui Ta with a flick of a pony tail, and paradoxically finds true heartbeat in the dramatic schizophrenia of sticking with a man she knows has betrayed her.
The second act gathers force and momentum as the versatile cast – including Susan Porrett, Michele Wade and Steven Beard as the gods in everyday clothes; Liza Sadovy as a quivering mother-in-law; and Adam Gillen as Wang, the distraught “village idiot” water-seller – fully savour the bitter taste of Harrower’s salty prose.