Monday, 19 October 2009
Epic and true to the spirit of Brecht
Mother Courage and her Children by Bertolt Brecht
National Theatre, London
The Thirty Years War might not sound like the perfect setting for a night’s entertainment, but Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 play, Mother Courage and her Children rises to the challenge.
It tells the story of Anna Fierling – Mother Courage – a businesswoman who, with her cart, travels around the battlefields of the 17th-century conflagration with her sons Eilif and Swiss Cheese, and her mute daughter Katrin, acting as a merchant to the various armies.
But in her desperate desire to make money from the war, Mother Courage loses all her children as it drags on and on. The prospect of peace is not one that this one-woman military-industrial complex relishes: there is no commercial promise beyond war.
It’s too easy to simply describe the play – which was written on the eve of WWII – as an anti-war one. One of the few uplifting moments comes when a moment of self-sacrifice warns a sleeping town that is about to be attacked, and the townspeople rise.
But Brecht was very sure about the commercial benefits of war and his protagonists all wearily and cynically reflect that belief.
The play is superbly served here in Deborah Warner’s new production. Using Tony Kushner’s 2006 translation, Warner restores the life to Brecht.
The writer himself, before a 1956 production of the play in London by the Berliner Ensemble, warned his company of two things: first, that very few in the British audience would understand German and second, that “there is in England a long-standing fear that German art (literature, painting, music) must be terribly heavy, slow, laborious and pedestrian.”
Indeed, in Theatre in Britain (1984), influential critic Harold Hobson noted that “the poverty of British productions of Brecht, heavy, sententious, and void of life, was exposed by the Berliner Ensemble when it came to one of Peter Daubney’s World Theatre Seasons and played The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui with verve, vigour, and regard for theatrical effect as well as doctrinal orthodoxy.
“To the Berliner Ensemble had been revealed a truth hidden from their British rivals, namely, that Brecht and entertainment are synonymous.”
I first saw Mother Courage way back in 1990. It was at the now sadly departed Mermaid Theatre and starred Glenda Jackson, in her final stage appearance before going off to become a Member of Parliament.
Little of that production has stuck in the mind – apart from the iconic final moments as the eponymous heroine drags her cart around after her, and that it was long and ‘traditionally’ costumed.
It would be easy to say that there is nothing remotely traditional in Warner’s production – but that would be wrong. The staging is pure Brecht; stripped back as far as possible, with stage crew visible and subtitles, hand painted on white sheets that are lowered at various times from above.
But from Mother Courage’s opening entry, atop the cart, vast skirt ballooning around her, helmet on her head and microphone in hand, there’s something thoroughly rock and roll about this production.
A new score, written by Northern Irish indie songster Duke Special sees most songs sung by him, together with various members of the cast. He weaves in and out of the action, looking for all the world like a lost little drummer boy with dreadlocks (which is, admittedly, how the Duke looks all the time). His choirboy voice provides a marked contrast with the violence around him.
The script crackles, the laughter comes, the energy carries the audience through three hours plus without ever flagging. And at the centre of it all is Fiona Shaw, a magnificent Courage. Pragmatic to the last, keeping her emotions just beneath the surface – although only barely – she deals with each new disaster by wrapping herself in the belief that she has to carry on, that commerce demands it.
And at the end, as she pulls her cart singlehandedly into an everlasting night, you realise that, for all the laughter, the knife has been well and truly twisted, and your heart is breaking.
As noted above, Brecht wrote this in 1939, and it’s been said many times that WWII is comparable in many ways to the Thirty Years War.
But recent history leaves the audience with other points of reference – the Balkans and Iraq in particular. And whilst the religious aspect of the Thirty Years War might not have been Brecht’s dominant idea when he was writing, here it comes into greater focus in terms of modern conflicts.
There’s a nice touch in the subtitles being read out when they descend: by Gore Vidal, the US writer and political commentator. Quoted in the programme, Vidal notes: “Why do governments pursue wars? Loot. They want to balance the budget.”
One could, thinking of Halliburton in particular, note that they also like to give themselves and their mates a share of the loot too.
This is truly epic theatre. And it is magnificent.