Picture it. A school in some forgotten corner of rural England many, many years ago.
A fresh-faced, young boy takes his first tentative steps into the spotlight. A green one, as it happens.
He is thrilled. He is wearing a dress. He is a god.
To be specific, he is Third God (there is no fourth) in Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan.
That young boy – hard as it is to picture looking at him now – was Phil.
It was splendid. On each of his entrances he was bathed in a green spotlight (no jokes please Andrew) and he and his colleagues had the audience on the edge of their seats slumped across their seats for an extraordinarily bum-numbing three and a half hours.
Could The Good Soul of Szechuan at the Young Vic possibly outshine that definitive high school production (In those days called The Good Person of Sichuan*) and could it possibly provide a challenge to Phil’s school play’s place in the Guinness Book of Records as the most painfully drawn out version of a Bertolt Brecht play ever?
To be fair, Szechuan had not been the first choice for Phil’s teacher/director – he had wanted to do Sweet Charity but the headmaster vetoed it because Sweet Charity is about a prostitute.
So what is TGSOS about? Well it’s about a prostitute. Presumably Brechtian hookers are acceptable whereas all-singing, all-taxi-dancing ones are not. It was Phil’s introduction to irony. Phil wasn’t bitter but has always regretted that his temporary apotheosis denied him an opportunity to perform the Rich Man’s Frug.
So, back to the Young Vic.
Things were looking good: the audience enters the theatre across the stage among the actors who are busying themselves as Chinese workers in a cement factory. Whilst it’s all very exciting it ultimately works against the experience as the first thing you get to see is an actor’s-eye view of how few unoccupied seats are left – the Whingers and their party of 11 stood no chance of sitting together.
Yes, sadly The Young Vic continues – despite our repeated instructions to cease and desist – to operate the Whingers’ bête noir: an unreserved seating policy (or “general admission” as it now tends to be called). The result? The party was split into two and everyone had a rubbish sightline.
This apart, the Whingers loved the set (Miriam Buether). The entire auditorium has been converted into an “environment” of a Chinese cement works with lots of cheap pale wood and strip lighting. It certainly creates an atmosphere and feels a bit like sitting in a giant packing case (Phil’s equivalent of the naughty step that he makes Andrew sit on sometimes).
Bags of cement are piled up and apparently at earlier previews some of the audience had been required to sit on some of them. Sadly they (the audience members, not the bags) complained so vociferously that the idea was dropped which is a shame as the Whingers do love an opportunity to grumble. Still, the school hall plastic chairs were pretty uncomfortable and a letter is in the post.
Anyway, Shen Te (Jane Horrocks, Bubble Does Brecht!) is the aforementioned prostitute who is the only soul in the desperately poor area good enough to take in three tired Gods visiting earth in search of a person who is not greedy, evil and selfishness like the people they have already encountered.
Rewarding her with money for her act of charity she buys a tobacco shop but is then beset by townspeople and relatives who all want a slice of her relative wealth. The only way she can deal with deal with them is to adopt the disguise of a tough cousin, Shui Ta.
Of course Brecht isn’t meant to be taken too literally, but how the people of Szechuan didn’t see through Shen Te’s disguise when she only puts on a suit and hat to appear as her male cousin is anyone’s guess. Superman/Clark Kent’s quiff/glasses transformation is more believable than this.
There was quite a bit of squabbling between the Whingers after the show about how good it was. Andrew had been dreading it – having hoped he would never have to sit through another lehrstück in his life – and so his expectations were readily exceeded. Phil was more downbeat about the whole thing although that may have been something to do with professional jealousy – after all, his performance was so long ago he practically created the role of Third God (remember – there is no fourth).
It got somewhat fractious and the Whingers had a bit of a ding-dong over Wang the water-seller (Adam Gillen). Phil found him intensely annoying (“like someone you wouldn’t want sitting next to you on a bus”) whereas Andrew liked him (probably as he could relate to the character more than Phil) and so did the rest of the audience as he got the biggest cheer of the evening at the curtain call (Phil thought he had not cared for him before in something. He had).
Less controversial was Shen Te’s confidante Mrs Shin (Linda Dobell) who was a hit with both Whingers. Wearing a range of expressions from disdain to extreme disgust the corners of her mouth must have had invisible weights attached to them. Phil was reminded of the look on Andrew’s visage the last time Phil suggested they go and see a Pinter.
Horrocks was great and there were many other performances to enjoy too. In fact there were oodles of things to write down: great wigs, a lot of cigarette smoking, rain, wonderful props and signage and even some more on-stage piano playing.
Ah, yes, the songs. What’s a Brecht play without a few dreadful songs? Well an agreeably shorter evening, presumably. With “numbers” such as “Pigs Will Fly” you can rest assured the Whingers won’t be rushing out to buy the cast album.
Top marks for The Vic for being so quick off the mark with a charity collection for the Sichuan earthquake – so quick that some of the audience hadn’t yet heard about it.
Brecht, assuming he had a sense of humour (though there was little in evidence last night) would probably have laughed as one punter passed the collection bucket claiming not to have any change, an appropriate gesture given Brecht’s take that there are few good souls out there (if, indeed, that was what it was about. Who knows)?
As Phil made his own nifty dash to avoid said buckets (thwarted unfortunately) he was stopped by an usher who informed him to wait for “the actors to clear the corridor first”. Phil tried reassuring her that he “didn’t mind actors”, but whilst the Vic positively encouraged civilians to mix with them on stage at the outset there was to be no such fraternising at the end.
Still, lehrstück and verfremdung notwithstanding, it was a good evening out thanks principally to the excellent company – Oliver, Mark, Helen, Lauren, WebCowGirl + 1, newcomer J. Arnott, Helen of Troy and – for reasons that are still not entirely clear – Observer food critic Jay Rayner who kept asking the Whingers impertinent questions and writing things down in his pad (once he had managed to borrow a pen from someone). He was a good sport, but then he comes from a house filled with love.
So, an enjoyable evening despite the play rather than because of it and Phil concluded that it’s a much more entertaining play to appear in than to watch, but that’s probably the case with most theatre.
The Whingers’ equity applications are in the post.
It came in at about 2 hours 40 minutes so Phil’s school’s record still stands.
* If you really want to know about the change of name (but you really would have to be desperate) then you can watch this: