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Review Round-up: Horrocks Captures Brecht's Soul

Jane Horrocks (pictured) stars in David Harrower’s new translation of Bertolt Brecht’s 1943 play The Good Soul of Szechuan, also known as the The Good Person of Szechuan (Der gute Mensch von Sezuan), which opened on Wednesday (14 May 2008, previews from 7 May) at the Young Vic, where it continues until 21 June (See Also Today’s 1st Night Photos).

Taking as its theme the conflict between goodness and the acquisition of wealth, the play concerns a young prostitute named Shen Te (Horrocks), who is financially rewarded by three gods for her display of kindness towards them. Using their reward to set up a tobacco shop, she soon finds the only way to survive the onslaught of scroungers is to adopt a male alter-ego, Shui-Ta, who can make the brutal decisions required for her survival.

Although not amongst Brecht’s most commonly performed plays, The Good Soul of Szechuan discordant songs and Marxist ideology are typical of his ‘epic theatre’ works. Its run at the Young Vic is the first major London outing since Deborah Warner's 1989 National Theatre production.

Lead actress Jane Horrocks was most recently seen in the West End production of Absurd Person Singular, and past credits include Little Voice (on stage and screen), Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet, and her career-making turn as Bubble in the BBC’s Absolutely Fabulous. The cast also includes Steven Beard, Linda Dobell, Gareth Farr, John Marquez, Sam O’Mahony-Adams, David Osmond, Susan Porrett, Sophie Russell, Liza Sadovy and Tom Silburn. Richard Jones directs.

While most first night critics expressed admiration for Jones’ “wildly inventive” production of The Good Soul of Szechuan and the performances from the cast, several had doubts about the play itself. Designer Miriam Buether's “epic” set, which transforms the Young Vic into a cement factory, drew particular plaudits, as did Jane Horrocks’ “poignantly divided” portrayal of Shen Te/Shui-Ta. But most critics remained ultimately bored by Brecht’s “dry-as-dust debate”, which one wrote off as “intolerably preachy and intellectually dishonest”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “For the second night running, Brecht following Rattigan, the London theatre anatomises a relationship between a socially conflicted heroine and a wasted, underemployed 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 … 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.”
    • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (four stars) – “You know before you reach your seat that Richard Jones’ production of Brecht’s famous parable is going to be inventive. To get to the stalls, you are taken into the nether areas of the Young Vic, entering through the wings and across the stage … Jane Horrocks is inspired casting as Shen Te … With her goggle-eyed gawkiness, the star of Ab Fab and Little Voice has never looked as if she inhabits the same planet as the rest of us, and here she treads a skilful line between goofy comedy and poignant innocence-abroad. She is magnificently supported by Adam Gillen as the twitching but loyal water-seller Wang, while John Marquez is a seductively grimy slab of beefcake as her no-good lover Yang Sun … The only problem, for me, is the text itself. To my ears the dry-as-dust debate about the impossibility of achieving perfect goodness in an imperfect world is a bore, however good the production.”
    • Paul Taylor in the Independent - “The (Young Vic) main house is unrecognisable – spectacularly transformed with boarded walls into a Chinese cement factory that wraps round the audience who sit on plastic chairs. Given that this setting is peripheral in the play to the main dramatic action, it might seem an odd choice of environmental design, but it powerfully contributes to the sense of jarring strangeness and dislocation that informs the proceedings … Jane Horrocks brings a vivid and vital force to the idea of a personality that's painfully split because, according to Brecht, altruism cannot be sustained in a corrupt capitalist society without causing counterproductive consequences. As the Angel of the Slums, Horrocks is an eager, black-wigged waif with a North Country accent. As the Tobacco King who becomes a heroin dealer, she's a hard-eyed go-getter with a Southern snarl … The production has a grotesque comic energy; jabbing Weill-style music for the songs; droll visuals (the townsfolk spill out of metal locker-homes); and an incisive grasp of Brecht's message.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “One of the great neglected plays of the 20th century has been rescued from near oblivion. It makes an absolutely devastating impact in a production by Richard Jones of stylised strangeness. The translator David Harrower has substituted the more suitable word ‘Soul’ for ‘Woman’ in the title of Bertolt Brecht’s tragi-comic parable, presumably to draw attention to his version’s arresting novelty … Based on Brecht’s rewritten, almost unknown Santa Monica edition, which heightens the original drama by transforming its main character into a heroin rather than tobacco dealer, The Good Soul of Szechuan might have been written just yesterday. The Chinese location, expressionistically evoked by designer Miriam Buether as a workplace packed with bags of cement or sand and peopled with somnambulistic, drudge-like workers in masks, could be anywhere … Horrocks, endearing but too subdued, fails to distinguish sufficiently between the passionate girl and the black-garbed businessman. But the production is bolstered by David Sawer’s pungent Kurt Weill-like musical interludes and Brecht’s dark, dazzling world-view.”
    • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “One of the incidental benefits of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism was that for a time we were spared the cruelly punishing plays of Bertolt BrechtThe Good Soul of Szechuan, which I was seeing for the first time, strikes me as an utter stinker. Even the presence of the delightful Jane Horrocks in the title role, and a spectacular if somewhat self-advertising production from Richard Jones, isn't enough to sugar the bitter pill. David Harrower's translation of a mercifully abbreviated version of the play still feels a desperately long haul … And all the wonders of Jones' staging and Miriam Buether's epic design - the theatre is reconfigured and turned into a harshly-lit cement factory - cannot disguise the didactic dreariness of the writing which has no higher ambition than to develop an arid political thesis.”

      - by Theo Bosanquet

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