12 May 2008

The Good Woman of Szechuan - Young Vic, Monday 12th May 2008


The play opens with Wang, a water carrier, explaining to the audience that he is on the city outskirts awaiting the foretold appearance of several important gods. Soon the gods arrive and ask Wang to find them shelter for the night. They are tired, having traveled far and wide in search of good people who still live according to the principles that they, the gods, have handed down. Instead they have found only greed, evil, dishonesty, and selfishness. The same turns out to be true in Sichuan: no one will take them in, no one has the time or means to care for others - no one except the poor young Shen Te, whose pure inherent charity cannot allow her to turn away anyone in need.

Shen Te is rewarded for her hospitality, as the gods take it as a sure sign of goodness. They give her money and she buys a humble tobacco shop which they intend as both gift and test: will Shen Te be able to maintain her goodness with these newfound means, however slight they may be? If she succeeds, the gods' confidence in humanity would be restored. Though at first Shen Te seems to live up the gods' expectations, her generosity quickly turns her small shop into a messy, overcrowded poorhouse which attracts crime and police supervision. In a sense, Shen Te quickly fails the test, as she is forced to introduce the invented cousin Shui Ta as overseer and protector of her interests. Shen Te dons a costume of male clothing, a mask, and a forceful voice to take on the role of Shui Ta. Shui Ta arrives at the shop, coldly explains that his cousin has gone out of town on a short trip, curtly turns out the hangers-on, and quickly restores order to the shop.

At first, Shui Ta only appears when Shen Te is in a particularly desperate situation, but as the action of the play develops, Shen Te becomes unable to keep up with the demands made on her and is overwhelmed by the promises she makes to others. Therefore she is compelled to call on her cousin's services for longer periods until at last her true persona seems to be consumed by her cousin's severity. Where Shen Te is soft, compassionate, and vulnerable, Shui Ta is unemotional and pragmatic, even vicious; it seems that only Shui Ta is made to survive in the world in which they live. In what seems no time at all, he has built her humble shop into a full-scale tobacco factory with many employees.

Eventually one of the employees hears Shen Te crying, but when he enters only Shui Ta is present. The employee demands to know what he has done with Shen Te, and when he cannot prove where she is, he is taken to court on the charge of having hidden or possibly murdered his cousin. The townspeople also discover a bundle of Shen Te's clothing under Shui Ta's desk, which makes them even more suspicious. During the process of her trial, the gods appear in the robes of the judges, and Shui Ta says that he will make a confession if the room is cleared except for the judges. When the townspeople have gone, Shen Te reveals herself to the gods, who are confronted by the dilemma that their seemingly arbitrary divine behavior has caused: they have created impossible circumstances for those who wish to live "good" lives, yet they refuse to intervene directly to protect their followers from the vulnerability that this "goodness" engenders.

Welcome back! Im writing this about three weeks after the event, as Ive been on holiday and far too busy enjoying myself to write theatre reviews! So apologies if its a bit sketchy on the details.

First good point was that the interior of the Young Vic has been completely and totally re-jigged, from being a theatre in the round to a proscenium arch clad with plywood representing the interior of an inhuman, soul destroying cement factory (the sense of shock, particularly to those familiar with the Young Vic, is quite profound). Rather than entering the auditorium from the back and sides as usual, the audience end up entering at the back of the stage and having to walk down through mimed action of endless drudgery to the seats - not the usual padded and comfy ones, but row on row of battered plastic chairs. As you climb down the steps to your chair, you are scrutinised by a timekeeper in a glass cabinet - all of which adds to your sense of alienation. The set is bleak, the chairs are ruddy uncomfortable, the walls of the set are lined with old lockers, there are dozens and dozen of teenagers in the audience (this must be a set text for A level EngLit!) .... it doesnt look like its going to be a comfy ride. I suppose this is all meant to increase the sense of bleakness and futility of life (particularly when surrounded by A level students). And this is provided in buckets, as Shen Te's life lurches from awful to bearable to good, back to awful and then to bloody awful and beyond. This being Brecht, there's lots of "bloody awful" as she is variously humiliated, imposed upon and betrayed, only finding happiness in the discovery that he is with child. Little compensation when her lover is robbing her blind and her business is sold for practically nothing. The bleakness all gets a little too heavy-handed sometimes, and this very stark, almost brutal production never allievates this dark view of the world.

I liked the multi-purpose set - lockers become front doors out of which various residents of Szechuan pop, the gap between the front row of seats and the stage becomes various alleyways along which people scuttle, a filing cabinet opens out to become a teahouse to provide shelter from a rainstorm, Shen Te's little tobacco shop is slyly jazzed up with different kinds of lights reflecting the upwards or downwards situation of her life. I also liked the doubling up of cast members - playing completely different characters with just a subtle change of clothes or make up. And, surprisingly, I enjoyed the actual story - in fact, I got so engrossed at one point that I actually stopped registering the "production".

I forget the name of the chap who played the Water Seller, but he was terrific, playing the role as a slightly backward, concentration-impoverished half idiot. One of the female gods was played by a teacher from Grange Hill, which was a little disconcerting. I kept expecting her to shout "Tucker Jenkins, detention!". Jane Horrocks .... hmmmm.... well, she makes a totally unconvincing man, for one thing. And the other thing is that there is just that little bit too much of Jane Horrocks/Bubble to make her portrayal completely convincing. I suppose that we are all too familiar with her TV persona to see her as anything other than a slightly ditzy actress who pouts a lot and speaks with a slightly Northern accent.

I enjoyed the actual play, I think, rather more than I enjoyed this particular production. What with Gods, prostitutes and Water Carriers, I think I was expecting something more of a traditional Chinese Fable sort of setting – which would have lent an “everything changes, everything stays the same” feel to the evening. Even bleaker than the play itself was the overshadowing fact that, although this play may paint a grim picture of Szechuan, conditions in the real province of Szechuan were even grimmer that night.

It was quite a raw evening all said, and I'm not 100% sure that I completely understood what Brecht was aiming at when he wrote the play - unless its "life is complete shit in a gloomy, Russian kind of way".

One comment which I overheard at the end from one of those poncey A level students trying to impress his friends: "I liked it, but only because it was Brecht. If it hadn't of [sic] been Brecht, it would have been rubbish". Plus ca change!

What the critics thought: