Mother Courage and Her Children has been built into my nervous system since a young age. Programmed and modified in vigorous lessons at GCSE’s, A Level and Degree level of teaching. Therefore I think it’s fair to say that it was about time that I actually went and saw the Brecht production for myself. As you can imagine, I hold the play quite dear to my heart, and actually rather like the themes that run through it. Nothing beats an epic war spread over many years, and the loss of people to that war. Judging from several reviews of the show already it would appear not everyone likes an epic proportion of a play, and quite a few people were lost to the tragic tale.
Let me set the scene, the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre, a vast stage exposed to the audience, blasts of sound effects and sound scopes echo around the auditorium. Stage managers, actors, scenery, and props are littered everywhere and anywhere. This is the start of a war, and Mother Courage the protagonist of Brechts play leads her cart of war supplies across what we know now as Europe with her three children, from three different fathers. This opening scene is quite dramatic, explosions going off, lights whirling beams around the stage, and Fiona Shaw standing on top of her cart singing an almighty song of war.
The production is going to epic, I could just tell, but the real question is more, did it live up to the epic proportions of the play that Brecht once wrote?
What I admire about Deborah Warner’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s, Mother Courage and Her Children, is how true she sticks to some of the Brechtian methods of alienation and distancing of the audiences, at no point is there a cause for emotion when Brecht is around. Huge banners and voice overs announce the start of new scenes and what happens within. “…her honest son dies” – This is what I love about Brecht, the fact you are told beforehand what to expect, and thus when it happens you are absent minded about any form of emotion.
Warner’s direction of Mother Courage for me stays true to the ways of Brecht, even down to the bursting of songs, which are delightfully played by Duke Special and band. Perhaps it’s all a bit theatrical, with the use of hand held microphones, but then once again it reminds us that we’re just watching a show, and as Brecht said: “I don’t want the audience to come into the theatre and hang their minds up with their hats”, or something close to that nonetheless.
Warner has brought the production up to speed rather (despite the three hour running time) with a contemporary feel to the production. It’s something about the staging, the scenery that is erected to symbolise but to not actually fulfill. It’s in the costumes and props, and maybe down to the swearing that is littered in Tony Kushner’s new translation.
Despite all of this, I can’t help feel that there is something missing from Mother Courage and Her Children, it lacks a heart, a keystone that completes the show. It’s as if it is missing a limb that it can’t function without. Don’t get me wrong, there is much to praise in this slightly risky production for the National Theatre, but after 3 hours I wanted more. I wanted full on explosions and blood and guts. I wanted to see the despair of Mother Courage as she loses her last child.
I just wanted more.
From a production with such epic proportions, you would have thought Warner would have pushed the piece beyond the comforts of ‘let’s keep this nice for the audience’. Alas, that wasn’t the case.
Fiona Shaw plays the lead here, and she does so with compelling conviction. She is rugged, and honest, witty and smart. I actually rather liked her singing, compared with some of the comments I’ve read! Personally I think she makes a fine leading lady and I can’t help but to feel that the pressure was on for her to push this piece constantly forward as she is rarely off the stage during the show. However she does so commendably, and I’d actually rather like to see her in future shows, she is certainly one to watch.
Another person to shine in this production comes from the slightly stupid and forgotten character of Swiss Cheese, played beautifully by Harry Melling. He manages to capture everything possible about this character, from movement, voice and presence. At times I found myself caught in his performance more than I did of Fiona Shaw.. and that’s something!
A note on the length of the production. It has been discussed at length at how long this production of Mother Courage and Her Children is. Yet I approve of the running time, it easily reflects that of the context of the play, being set over a war that lasts years upon years. A war that never truly ends. The length of the production reflects that of the length of the lives of the characters living through a war that never ends.
My advice to people would be to check out the performance, it’s entertaining, fresh and really bold, just don’t expect to be completely drawn into the action and leave bowled over by the magic of theatre, because if anything, Brecht is far from making theatre like this.
A bold and challenging piece that brings the light out of a classic Brecht play.
Mother Courage and Her Children is playing in the Olivier Theatre of the National Theatre until 08 December 2009. Check the National Theatre website for details