What's the definition of capitalism? The exploitation of man by man. What's the definition of communism? It's the other way round. There's something about this excellent revival of Bertolt Brecht's 60-year-old play that brought that hoary old Soviet joke (it sounds better in Russian with fewer words) into my mind. Often I find Brecht's didactic Marxist propaganda so tiresome that it prevents me enjoying his theatrical genius at telling a story; not this time, however. Director Richard Jones and his designer Miriam Buether have had the clever idea of transforming the play's setting from a peasant village to what looks like a New Economic Zone on the Pearl river, a place where poorly clad migrant workers scrape a living under the harsh strip lights, where a ruthless blend of capitalism and communism seems to combine the worst dehumanising aspects of both. The Young Vic, only recently rebuilt and reopened, has been given a makeover in cheap plywood that sheathes not only the stage but the auditorium, which is hung with banners in Chinese. Not being a Chinese speaker, I've no idea what they say, but given the fact that most of them have a telephone number attached, I don't imagine they are proclaiming the victory of Marxism-Leninism. As the audience crosses the stage to find a seat, the air is full of dust as workers in shabby pink overalls and rubber boots pile up sacks of what looks like building material. We're in a cement factory where the weary workers punch their timecards and wait for the factory hooter to signal the end of their shift. When the play starts the actors' clothes are ill-matched and dirty, the kind of junk that even the shabby-chic audience at the Young Vic wouldn't be seen dead in. Only Shen Te the good-hearted prostitute looks vaguely smart in a blue dress. When she meets the gods, two women and a man who are dressed as middle-ranking Chinese officials, their reward to her of a hundred silver dollars enables her to buy a tobacco kiosk set in a hideous lime green box. Surrounded by cartons of Chinese cigarettes piled on shelves, Jane Horrocks as Shen Te finds her kiosk invaded by the local equivalent of the Gallagher family from Channel 4's Shameless, all anxious to exploit her good will. The slight figure of Horrocks, with a dark wig, wide-eyed innocence and northern accent, is perfectly cast as Shen Te, and as her alter ego the ruthless businessman Shui Ta. The best moments in the performance are the musical ones, and it's no accident that Richard Jones is better known as a director of opera rather than of theatre. The music is by David Sawer and it carries strong echoes of Kurt Weill's sharp-edged score for Brecht's Threepenny Opera. The translation is by David Harrower, from a later text of the play than the one normally performed. I've seen the standard version, though not recently enough to make meaningful comparisons, but I think this one is more punchy. Crucially, the sacks which the invading family leave with Shen Te in the opening scene contain not tobacco, but heroin. I liked everything about this exciting production, I have to confess. There are excellent performances from Adam Gillen as Wang the waterseller and John Marquez as Yang Sun the pilot. I felt that the Chinese setting, which is rather notional for Brecht, was transformed into something coherent and meaningful by this production, and when the cast asked us to contribute to aid for victims of this week's earthquake in Szechuan, it seemed a logical end to the evening. I was a bit worried at the start about the poor actors carrying those heavy bags of cement, but I was relieved to see during the interval that a slightly built female stagehand wheeled off a huge pile of them on a trolley without apparent effort. My theory is that the sacks probably contain the kind of polystyrene globules that are used to protect glass and china sent by post. I'm sure there's a moral here for students of Brecht's famous Verfremdungseffekt, but I can't quite think what it is.
My advice to all and sundry is threefold: firstly, beg, borrow or steal a ticket for this show; secondly, splash out a fiver beforehand on a bowl of noodles in the excellent Chinese cafe next to the theatre; and thirdly, try out the telephone numbers on the banners posted round the theatre. Here's a couple of them: 02869773846 and 02884537434. Add the dialling code for China and I suspect you'll find yourself talking to a stockbroker in Shanghai.