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01.11.2009-Mother Courage and her Children

Mother Courage and her Children, The National Theatre (Olivier), 28.10.2009, 2pm.

Deborah Warner's stunning new production of Mother Courage and her Children brings to Brecht's tragedy of war a stark contemporary resonance; the cyclical presence of war permeates the minds of the audience just as it does the lives and narratives of the characters from the outset. Before the performance begins in earnest, distorted speeches of twentieth century leaders including Churchill and Bush are played over sounds of artillery fire and battle chaos; surely an explicit demonstration from the get-go that Mother Courage has equal resonance today as it did when Brecht wrote it in 1939.

Brecht's 'Verfremdungseffekt' (or distancing effect) whereby the audience are not to become immersed in the action presented on stage and remain active, critical observers is accomplished in this performance through a number of strategies. The most tangible is the use of signs and captions; locations are non-naturalistic in their representation, and are demonstrated through language, not mimetic replication. An officer's tent is demonstrated by a sign reading 'An Officer's Tent' hoisted above the action, serving to strip away all artifice. Use of signs as indicators of location also serve to make the action feel elongated; although we are told (through Gore Vidal's narration of the scene headings) that Courage and her wagon move across Europe, we consistently see them stuck in the same sparse environment. With the exception of Courage, her children and the wagon, everything else on an aesthetic level is muted and indistinguishable, including the armies fighting each other, further demonstrating the repetitive and dangerously confusing nature of war. The production (and indeed Brecht's original text) is not about a specific war, be it the Thirty Years War, the Second World War or any conflict of the twenty first century, it concerns war and the commoditisation of conflict across epochs.

Throughout the performance, backstage processes are put on stage as a further means through which the artifice of performance can be deconstructed by the audience. Elements of the production process which remain hidden in many contemporary performances are present in Warner's 'Mother Courage'; from a group of stage managers dancing along to one of Duke Special's raucous compositions, to the visible scene transitions, we are actively reminded that we are watching a theatrical construction, not a slice of real life.

However, despite the prevalence of Brecht's distancing techniques in the production, we are nevertheless constantly engaged with the characters. Fiona Shaw's commanding performance in the title role demonstrates the sheer range that is required to play a character as seemingly contradictory and relentless as Courage. She lurches from the effervescent (when bartering with The Cook over the price of a chicken: "It's practically a turkey") to the tragic when she loses each of her adopted children in succession as a result of her failure to separate the role of profiteer from the role of mother. Shaw truly makes the role her own from the moment she arrives on stage serenading the audience perched atop her beloved wagon, and her confident physicality cements Courage's status as earth-mother come shrewd business woman who is rarely intimidated. On the occasions where the language of buying and selling fails her and she loses control of situations (the death of Swiss Cheese), we become all the more empathetic towards her as a result of Shaw's capacity as a performer. To her testament, she does not seem at all overwhelmed by the magnitude and expectation associated with taking on such an iconic part, once famously played by Brecht's second wife, Helen Weigel. Shaw interacts with and feeds off of the audience as much as she does her fellow performers and fills the vast space of the Olivier with an energy which enlivens the entire performance. Clifford Samuel, Harry Melling and Sophie Stone also prove themselves more than capable in their roles as Eilif, Swiss Cheese and Kattrin respectively.

Original musical compositions by Irish singer/songwriter/musician Duke Special (accompanied by his band) bring texture and vibrancy to the performance; the songs he has composed (particularly in their lyrical content) simultaneously evoke a spontaneous, gig-like atmosphere as well as heightening the emotional significance and underlying themes of the piece. The music is infectious and poignantly guides the narrative through to denouement; the final sung line of the piece ('Unless the war goes on in hell...') accompanied by the image of a now lone Mother Courage relentlessly pulling the wagon along behind her into a flood of bright yellow light at the back of the stage demonstrates more than ever the futility of war and poetically brings the tragedy of Courage to a close. Only by losing Eilif, Swiss Cheese and eventually Kattrin does Mother Courage begin to fully count the true cost of war, apart from the price of goods and bargaining.

Although the fact that the audience feels such empathy for Courage, her children and their plight seems contradictory to Brecht's requirement that the spectator remains objective, I would argue that the more we engage with the characters, the more protracted our incomprehension and interrogation of war becomes. By relentlessly throwing tragic event after tragic event at Courage, Brecht in his narrative engages us with her fate, and Fiona Shaw's performance demonstrates a depth of feeling and love for her adopted children which makes her loss of them all the more harrowing. As we become so involved with the fates of Courage, Eilif, Swiss Cheese and Kattrin through both Brecht's dramaturgy and the performances of the actors portraying them, we see the faces of thousands of mothers who have lost sons and daughters as a result of war and thus question how any act of warfare that decimates lives and families in such a way can be called just and carried out in our name, surely accomplishing Brecht's objective of creating an active spectator who sees resonances of the drama they watch in society.

(Image credit and Sarah Farrell, please do not reproduce without permission.)


  1. Really shocked you didn't make it further in the Look Magazine blog competition. I love reading your blog because it offers more than fashion (i.e. your theatre review above). Keep up the good work! x


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