Bertolt Brecht noted in his journal that The Good Soul of Szechuan "caused me more trouble than any play I ever did ... It is a play that needs to be perfectly finished, and it isn't." Even if such an ambitious, sprawling work will never feel quite right, at least David Harrower's version, first seen at London's Young Vic last year, offers a provocative new means of getting it wrong. Harrower's adaptation follows a cut-down second draft Brecht prepared for an unrealised Broadway production in 1943, but restores some material from the original that may have been too hastily discarded.
The most substantial difference is related to the substances involved. In the original version, a triumvirate of gods descend to determine whether there are any honest people left in Szechuan Province, and reward the public-spirited prostitute Shen Te with her own tobacco shop. Harrower's text makes it explicit that Shen Te's stock is opium. Chris Honer's production trades on the irony that the gods, portrayed as an unsmiling, celestial moral health inspectorate, corrupt the one unsullied soul they are able to find by setting her up as a heroin dealer. But it adds further unnecessary emphasis to Brecht's much-reiterated point that pure goodness cannot thrive in a capitalist society that more readily rewards self-interest and deceit.
Honer presents the action as a broadly entertaining spectacle against the corrugated surfaces of Michael Pavelka's shanty town design. David Sawer's tunes are so rousing you wish there were more; and though Poppy Miller makes a spirited Shen Te, she is severely bullied by Kieran Hill as her chauvinistic suitor Yang Sun, a grounded pilot and living proof that pigs don't fly.
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Guardian: The Good Soul of Szechuan | Theatre review
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