First Night: The Good Soul Of Szechuan, The Young Vic Theatre, London

Brecht strikes again in grotesque comedy of doomed altruism
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Young Vic scored a critical hit last year with the Big Brecht Fest, a season of short plays that showcased unfamiliar facets of Marxism's favourite dramatist and proved it's occasionally possible to put "Brecht" and "knockabout fun" in the same sentence.

The theatre pulls all the stops out again with Richard Jones's wildly inventive production of a play that is usually called The Good Person of Szechuan, the person upgraded to soul in this robust new translation by David Harrower.

The 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.

In Brecht's "parable play", three gods descend to earth in search of a good human being. They award a sum of money to the prostitute Shen Te who is the only person prepared to offer them hospitality. She uses this windfall to buy a small tobacco shop and it's then that her troubles begin. Sponging freeloaders colonise her premises, here even bringing their piano and washing line, and take advantage of her good nature. She can only survive by creating and impersonating a male alter ego, the ruthless and exploitative Shui Ta.

Switching between these identities, 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. Unable to stop loving the unemployed airman (John Marquez) despite the proof he's given to Shui Ta that he only wants her money, her Shen Teh is a poignantly divided figure. Once pregnant, though, she surrenders the remorseless values of her other self.

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. It's a deliciously funny and apt touch that the gods are presented as a trio of pompously middle-class and complacent divinities. They are desperate to get back to heaven where their now discredited belief in abstract goodness will once again go unchallenged.