Can good people survive on this earth? Not if they have to sit through Richard Jones's punitive production of The Good Soul of Szechuan, in a new version from David Harrower (Blackbird) that may well prompt uninitiates to Bertolt Brecht to flee at the first opportunity. Things improve
The failure of Good Person to land more powerfully takes on near-tragic dimensions in light of the grievous news of late from the very province of China where the play is set. To see real-life footage of a people struggling amid rubble and unimaginable chaos is to question the existence of the very god, or gods, who themselves make a decidedly suburban, bedraggled appearance throughout this play. They are the ones in triplicate who make themselves known amid the dusty environmental cement factory that is Miriam Buether's impressive if oddly underexploited set, appearing more or less on cue just as the water-seller, Wang (Adam Gillen, squinting and pigeon-toed, presumably on purpose), lets slip that heaven is alarmed by the amount of complaints it's been getting. That, in turn, leads the trio to the best person there is in Szechuan, namely Shen Te, who goes on to open a shop full of hope that within an instant is given over to chaos. As the townspeople carry on like refugees from Hair carousing away to David Sawer's tuneless score, one begins to wonder whether Jones hasn't taken Brecht's vaunted strategy of alienation rather too much to heart.
The plot grinds on to show us the price paid by kindness, in the process permitting Horrocks to give full vent to her customary vocal tricks in a performance that doesn't do much to engage us with either of her two roles: the empathy felt in Galileo, or for that matter throughout the National Theatre/Diana Rigg Mother Courage, is sorely missing. The supporting players are either shrill or exist to be glumly maneuvered about the stage like so many authorial pawns, popping in and out of the gym lockers that here represent the homes of a beaten down populace. Welcome flashes of wit appear courtesy Liza Sadovy, juggling two roles, and John Marquez brings a blighted swagger to the part of the wannabe pilot who romances our heroine before turning, well, to heroin. (Between this play and the concurrent reprise of Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea, airmen are obviously bad news.) But whereas there was something approaching fun to the Deborah Warner/Fiona Shaw take on this same text at the National Theatre some years back, this Good Soul feels all too often like theater that's good for you. The hectoring may well be right, but those wanting catharsis or even a connection will feel as if they've been wronged.