Thursday 29 May 2008

Up to the gods

The Good Soul of Szechuan, The Young Vic, London

‘Heaven’, says Wang the water seller, ‘is alarmed by the amount of complaints it’s been getting’. So three gods come to find out whether it’s really impossible to live a virtuous life in this world. Very timely. Are we not all trying, these days, to live an ethical life? To get by without harming anyone else, without inflicting environmental damage, even hoping to make a small impact on the ocean of suffering, if only to be able to sleep at night?

Adam Gillen’s water seller, a disturbed figure whose tics place him on the fringe of society, meets the gods first, picking them out easily as outsiders. In fact, they’re three comfy, middle-class Westerners with ‘do-gooder’ written all over them, squabbling comically over how far they can bend their definition of virtue to avoid admitting that it’s not people who are the problem, but the world they’re living in.

Shen Te (Jane Horrocks) may be a prostitute, but she does offer them hospitality, which is enough to make her their one Good Soul. Reluctantly, they accept her pleading that it’s hard to be good when everything’s so expensive, and giver her some money ‘for our accommodation’, before they go. When old Beetroot Breath (as my spellchecker calls him) wrote this play in exile during World War II, things were different. The idea that the world is intolerable, and that the gods ought to change things, clearly referred to social change for, and by, those at the bottom of the capitalist pile. Even when I first encountered it in the 1980s, looking back with student nostalgia to the days of armed liberation struggles, it was acknowledged that the free market was not the only option. People might, at least in theory, change their circumstances as well as the other way around.

Now, Steven Beard’s kindly, bespectacled God 3 scrabbles vainly at the door to Heaven that stays obstinately closed, flush to the plywood walls. The gods, more battered and despairing every time they reappear, are trapped here with the rest of us. When Shen Te asks in song why the gods can’t use ‘tanks and cannons, battleships, bombers and mines’, to enforce a fairer world, it evokes only uneasy images of ‘humanitarian intervention’ by well-equipped Western armies.

Richard Jones’s direction draws out the humour, especially from John Marquez’s Yang Sun and Linda Dobell’s Mrs Shin, but it’s also a tough parable. How can Shen Te continue to be good? She invests the gods’ money wisely in a small business – a tobacco shop (ah, the innocent 1930s). But immediately she’s overwhelmed by hangers-on. In a scene worthy of Marx (Groucho, not Karl) the small shop is filled by an extended family drinking, singing, and playing trumpet and piano. In a world of desperation, the divine equivalent of micro-credit doesn’t go very far. In fact, it doesn’t even run to a memorable tune. On the whole, Jones uses Brecht’s non-naturalistic style not to alienate us but to entertain us with direct playing to the audience, physical comedy and music. Sometimes this strays too close to caricature for my 21st century tastes, pushing Jane Horrocks from captivating to grating. More often, the light touch sharpens the tragedy of being forced to choose between human values and survival.

The setting, a bleak cement factory peopled by faceless labourers in masks and blue coveralls, instantly evokes a contemporary Western image of China: brutal, industrial, and inhuman. In Brecht’s China, as in thirties America, everyone smokes, the unemployed are destitute, and extended families do whatever they must to get by. Only Shen Te’s hardheaded cousin Shui Ta can save her from losing her new business through her own softheartedness. But today, when the choice for China is not capitalism or Communism, but capitalist development or no development, the unscrupulous businessman Shui Ta is a more ambivalent figure. True, thanks to his status as tobacco baron he seems above the law, but it’s also true that he’s employed most of the unfortunates that Shen Te pitied.

If there are parallels to be drawn with modern China, they are not morally simple. It’s interesting that the Young Vic has gone for a version of the play in which Shui Ta’s success rests on his heroin empire, in case tobacco doesn’t place him clearly enough beyond today’s moral pale. The child who was rummaging through bins for food is now employed – but the tobacco factory has given him a cough. Which is worse? Which is better?

Michelle Wade’s God 2, the quickest to denounce all of humanity as godless sinners and cheats, makes it clear that ‘we don’t get involved in economic matters’. The echo of China’s critics, who prefer it poor and virtuous, not rich and developed, rings in our ears.

In the end, the dishevelled gods do escape through the door to their shining world beyond, leaving Shen Te to face her dilemmas alone. Nothing is resolved, there’s no happy ending. Just, as Brecht intended sixty-odd years ago, a pile of questions and the uncomfortable feeling that morality may not be the best way to approach them. And the feeling that you’ve just spent an exceptionally worthwhile evening in the theatre.

Till 28 June 2008

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