Thomas Sutcliffe: The good soul of Brecht? I don't see it

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The Independent Online

It was an odd experience watching Richard Jones's new production of The Good Soul of Szechuan at the Young Vic last week – and not only because Jones has a well-deserved reputation for the crafting of odd theatrical experiences. That helped, of course.

The audience filed in to the auditorium to find themselves in what appeared to be a cement factory in mid-shift. Ranks of industrial lockers lined both sides of the stage, starkly lit by glaring neon, and a faint haze of dust hung in the air, stirred up by shuffling workers in overalls, heaving bags of gravel around the set. Whether you can actually alienate an audience well-schooled to know that alienation is their cultural duty is a moot point, but Jones wasn't going to fail for want of trying.

What he could hardly have predicted, though, were the unexpected echoes between what we were watching on stage and what we'd seen on TV for the last three or four days, in coverage of the real Szechuan in the aftermath of the earthquake.

In Jones's production the workers, uniformly overalled and masked against the dust, have been reduced to zombified shells by (one assumes) the grinding exploitations of capitalism. In the news coverage figures uncannily similar to Jones's proletariat victims (they even wore the same pinky-orange boiler suits) sat slumped and despairing because their selflessness had not been proportionately rewarded. And the sharp contrast between these two images of ordinary people couldn't help but underline an anxiety about Brecht's vision of the world, which only increased as the play went on.

One of the things that startled me – having rather taken it on trust that Brecht was a figure of searching moral and social enquiry when I read him as an undergraduate – was just how bleakly cynical his view of human nature is. His play tells the story of three Gods who descend to earth to find one righteous soul. When they encounter a good-hearted prostitute, Shen Te, they believe they have succeeded and reward her with a lump-sum payment. But this makes her the envy of all her neighbours and inexorably drives her into the position of oppressor within a society deformed (one assumes again) by the brutal realities of capitalism.

Only by pretending to be her ruthless male cousin Shui Ta can she fend off the opportunists and scoundrels that surround her – and, incidentally, preserve enough cash for small acts of charity. I was reminded of the Gospel According to Margaret Thatcher, which held that the Good Samaritan was only empowered to help out because he'd first done rather well in Samaria's business-friendly legislative culture.

The main point, though, is that virtually everybody in the play is loathsome; self-interested, grasping, dishonest and corrupt. And in the light of what was happening in Szechuan that seemed less like an unblinking perspective on the cruel realities of an unjust world than a libel on humanity. Non-theatrical China was giving the lie to Brecht's version – proving that people who had lost absolutely everything could still afford to care about others.

More pointedly still, the very ideological system that Brecht proposed to release mankind's finer feelings from the shackles of economic necessity had resulted in unchecked corruption and murderously shoddy construction standards. There's a lot right about the production, and Jane Horrocks gives a winning performance as Shen Te, but when it comes to Brecht virtually everything is wrong.

I can't put this together

It's intriguing to learn that Ikea is to begin selling virtual furniture for Sims, confident that there are people out there happy to pay for sofas you can only sit on in cyberspace. But if realism is the goal it seems odd that the most salient real-world feature of much Ikea furniture – the mental agony of constructing it – should be left out of the simulation. After all, they have dirty dishes and dog mess in the Sims. Instead of click-and-dragging a perfect Leksvik coffee table or a Vika Hyttan desk into place you should get a pile of components and a PDF file of one of those wordless instruction leaflets. Since Sims already communicate in what looks like comic book swearing they won't need any new software for what generally happens next.

* Having lead the way in getting rid of "dumb" cluster bombs, the UK government is now dragging its heels in an attempt to retain the "smart" version – in which individual bomblets notionally self-destruct to avoid civilian casualties (though everyone knows they won't all be so obliging). "It is not likely to pose an unacceptable post-conflict humanitarian risk," the Government said of one of the weapons it hopes to hold on to. The next time he's in front of a microphone it would be very interesting to hear Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, explain what his definition of an acceptable post-conflict humanitarian risk is. There presumably must be one, since even the MoD doesn't attempt to argue that these weapons are 100 per cent reliable. In blunter terms, how many mutilated children, Mr Browne, mark the tipping point between a "smart" policy and an indefensibly "dumb" one?