The Theatreguide.London Review
Mother Courage and Her Children
Olivier Theatre Autumn 2009
As you enter the Olivier Theatre actors and techies are wandering about the half-built set, sound checks are being taken, various curtains are raised and lowered, and I'm afraid that all I could think was 'OK. We get the message. It's Brecht. Now get on with it.'
Later, stagehands will remain visible, TV cameras will project close-ups on huge screens, and scene and costume changes will take place onstage.
Director Deborah Warner has clearly chosen to make this production as 'brechtian' as possible, employing all the anti-naturalistic devices the somewhat out-of-fashion textbooks tell us Brecht wanted.
And she does it, so on one level the show can be called a success. The problem is that it is also long, cold, uninvolving and too rarely theatrically alive.
Brecht's play is about a seventeenth-century camp follower, a small-time merchant following the various armies of the Thirty Years' War, selling whatever tat she can.
Her determination and survival skills are magnificent and admirable, except for the fact that they dehumanise her - Brecht repeatedly puts her in a position where she must choose between, say, the survival of her business and the life of her child.
She always makes the practical choice, and whatever our immediate emotional reaction to that is, Brecht makes us question and reconsider it.
Brecht notoriously wanted his plays to appeal to the intellect more than the emotions, but it is universally agreed that his best plays - and Mother Courage may be his very best - work when the repressed emotion breaks through, when, for example, we find ourselves feeling for Courage in spite of the play's objectivity.
And it is exactly that quality that Deborah Warner's 'brechtianism' resists with such determination that, despite the theatrical razzle-dazzle, she sucks almost all the life out of the play, making for a very heavy-going three-hours-plus (despite cutting one whole scene and a big chunk of another) that a noticeable portion of the audience doesn't stay for.
Just to choose a couple of the directorial decisions that are not just' alienating' in the brechtian sense but energy-draining, every scene opens with the recorded voice of Gore Vidal reading Brecht's scene-setting description, but in a halting manner that could almost suggest that English was not his first language.
And rather than have the actors sing the ironic songs Brecht inserts in almost every scene, Warner has cast rock singer Duke Special and his band to wander into the most intimate moments, sing the songs and wander out again, an effect that is alienating in all the wrong ways.
And in the middle of all this strides Fiona Shaw as Courage.
I am second to none in my admiration of Shaw as an actress, and she does do some marvellous things, whether it is making her first entrance atop her cart as she belts out a song like Grace Slick, or using her natural Irish inflections to give Courage the earthy and ironic voice of one who has seen too much to be surprised by anything.
And there is one moment, when she is forced to deny the dead body of her son, when Shaw lets us watch the hitherto young and vital woman age before our eyes, that should be filmed and studied by young actors forever.
But forced to give too many of her songs to Duke Special and directed so that every scene just peters out rather than building or sustaining its emotions, Shaw just can't draw us into Courage or, eventually, make us care, and neither can the other actors.
Extensive cutting of an early scene means that when Martin Marquez as the Cook reappears later in the play, we hardly remember who he is. One of the emotional climaxes of the play involves Courage's mute daughter, played by Sophie Stone, but the cutting of a key character-establishing scene, an odd and self-defeating change in a key prop, and some clumsy staging result in the scene just lying there.
And the final image of the play, of the now-alone Courage either heroically or insanely (depending on where your reconsiderations of her ended up) pulling her cart off in search of another army to follow, has none of the theatrical magic or iconic power you yearn for it to have.
Tony Kushner's translation is colloquial and appropriately obscene, and only occasionally grates ('I've got nothing. Zilch.').
Deborah Warner has shown us how twenty-first century theatre technology can contribute to textbook 'brechtian' effects, and I'm sure the exercise was a fascinating one for her and her crew. It just isn't a whole lot of fun to sit through from out front.
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