Sunday, 6 December 2009


4/12/09, National (Olivier)

3hrs 10 mins. Brecht's classic in a new translation by Tony Kushner. The production, by Deborah Warner, had a troubled genesis. One preview had to be abandoned. Jane at work said she saw the press night performance, a fortnight after it was originally scheduled.

Fiona Shaw in a sprawling, noisy, intermittently moving but generally unsatisfactory affair. Hard to tell if this was Brecht's fault or the fault of Ms Warner and co. D thought Fiona Shaw's performance was magnificent. I thought it was OK, but I felt rather detached from the whole thing. There was only one moment I thought the theatre fell truly still, when Mother Courage mourned the death of her second son.

Great white sheets dropped down with the details of each scene, also intoned in voice-over by Gore Vidal (of all people). Additional information was supplied by a soldier in combats and shorts speaking into a mic at one side of the stage; when we arrived he was doing close-miked shooting/explosion noises and he also had a footpedal which produced a (very loud) explosion noise which became very annoying as the evening wore on. All good Brechtian alienation.

There was also some deeply alienating music by someone called Duke Special: dull, characterless stuff. We agreed the pace slowed drastically when he was on. During some of the songs a video camera showed a close-up of his face, projected onto one of the sheets, but like a number of things about this production (G Vidal's presence was another) it felt like an idea that hadn't been properly developed.

There was a large cast and the show was long (it might have been longer, but the cast list included characters in at least one scene who didn't appear). On the other hand, the shape and narrative of the piece was much clearer than when I saw it previously with Kathryn Hunter at the New Ambassadors. Though much of what happens, in any version, is bound to seem arbitrary because that's the way it's written and that's the way war is.

Mother Courage's problem is that she loves her children but she loves making money too. One son dies because she bargains too hard for his life. The Catholics catch him and kill him and her grief when she sees his bloodied body laid out on a bier was very affecting (S thought she detected visual hints of the dead Christ and a thousand pietas).

The second son enjoys soldiering and violence too much and pays the price, calling for his mother as he's executed.

The dumb daughter is raped(?) and dies banging a drum to alert her mother, away doing deals in the besieged city, that the enemy are at hand. They shot her down from the roof with a very real-looking and very loud general-purpose machine gun.

The cart was splendid: a square framework on wheels, surrounded by a white sheet, which became a double decker at the height of her pomp and success as a profiteer, and then a tattered old thing at the end.

The performances largely forgettable: this isn't a play which welcomes subtelty in the actors. But we warmed to Stephen Kennedy (the nice Ian in The Archers) as a Protestant chaplain forced into civvies as a Mother Courage fellow-traveller.

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