By Bertolt Brecht, translated by Tony Kushner
Directed by Deborah Warner
Venue: Olivier Theatre
Date: Saturday 5th December 2009
Straight off I was worried by the setup, especially the droning music in the background. Actually, it was more like the foreground. It was a really unpleasant sound, and, like the Therese Raquin earlier (Lyttelton, November 2006) I was considering leaving, only this time it would have been before the play began!
The set suggested some kind of protest situation, with an area roped off, cones and tape everywhere, and an industrial feel to the stage. When the play started, with the army recruiters meeting up to discuss business, the music stopped (thankfully), but the stage was the same. It was only at Mother Courage’s entrance that things started to liven up.
The gaping hole in the middle of the stage allowed a platform to be raised up, and on it was the travelling van Mother Courage used to peddle her wares. It was being pulled by two of her children, and once it had reached stage level, it went on a long journey round the place. All the while, Mother Courage (Fiona Shaw) was standing on top of the van, singing her song, wearing a peculiar costume which suggested both modern and old, and demonstrating her star status with a pair of sunglasses. The musicians may also have started to appear on stage around this time, as they frequently did. The band, led by Duke Special, did some excellent numbers throughout, ranging across styles, and making the production much more entertaining.
The sets changed frequently, always using the simplest techniques to create the locations. For an army tent, one canvas sheet would be lowered, with flaps for windows and doors. There were more elaborate pieces for the scene where Courage’s daughter warns the sleeping townsfolk, and often the van was the centre of it all. We were also treated to short readings by Gore Vidal of the bits between the scenes, telling us what was happening in the war, and what life was like for the people (usually dire). Brecht’s dry wit shone through, despite the horrors being related.
Fiona Shaw’s performance was excellent. She gave us a very clear picture of a woman who thought she was taking advantage of the war, but who was completely caught up in it, and eventually almost destroyed by it. Her family certainly was, as all three children died as a result of the war, and she was left alone, trying to keep going. Her courage and brazen rapaciousness were both attractive and repellent, but it’s her greed for life that stands out most for me. Even after the beating that life gives her, she’s still battling on, perhaps stupidly, and perhaps bringing about her own downfall, but still keeping on. And clearly a punk, as Fiona’s dancing during one of the numbers indicated.
The other performances were also good, and I’m glad I stayed to watch it, but even so, it’s still Brecht, and there were lots of tedious patches which simply had to be endured. I also find it difficult to relate to these characters, which reduces my enjoyment, but for those who like this sort of thing, I suspect this was a very good production. It certainly got an enthusiastic response from the audience, and I’m glad to report that there were plenty of youngsters around us today.
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me