Brecht's problem play

Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children is a problem play, and the National Theatre's new production has had more than its share of troubles, with a press night postponed because the actor playing the second lead, the chaplain, either quit or was sacked, and replaced by an excellent Stephen Kennedy. This diverted critical attention, for a few moments, from the fact that this production, in a whizz-bang translation by Tony Kushner, is directed by Deborah Warner and stars her constant collaborator, Fiona Shaw. 

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But the real problem is the play itself. I've seen stagings in which Brecht's woman-profiteer in the Thirty Years War is so dislikeable that you can scarcely bear to look at her, and others in which she is so hard that you can't believe in her single display of maternal instinct (when presented with the body of her favourite son). And I've seen others in which the lighting effects are so gloomy that the play might as well have been performed in the dark. The National's production has none of these drawbacks. From the moment she appears on the top of her cart, in hippy dress of billowing skirts that look like jodhpurs made for a giant, Fiona Shaw radiates a sort of paradoxical good nature, and is almost too attractive.  Ms Warner achieves Brecht's alienation effects by the simple expedient of showing us all the stage machinery and stage-hands talking into their mics, and by having the musicians, a sort of Kurt Weill-tribute band led by Duke Special, an elfin creature with blond dreadlocks, one of them disconcertingly bisecting his face. He has a lovely voice though, to go with his sweet smile, as he bobs and weaves in and out of the stage action. His lyrics are interesting, his melodies a little too lyrical for Brecht, but not much short of first-rate.
No, the trouble is Brecht. Ms Warner seems to have had the same trouble as I have deciding whether this is really an anti-war play, or whether it's an ideological play, taking a convenient anti-war stance when composed in 1939, because it was what the Communist Party was telling him to do, in support of the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact. Does it keep the faith, or does it stink of bad faith? Oddly enough, I think the decision to have Gore Vidal read the scene-setting stage directions argues against it being a pacifist play. It was a lovely surprise, when the curtain calls came at the first night, that Ms Shaw wheeled the old boy out in his wheelchair - and he broke with all National Theatre tradition and practice and called for a microphone. He made a very brief speech against the war in Afghanistan - and not, I think, from the absolutist position that all war is wrong. We cheered Gore Vidal to the rafters, of course; but what he was doing was drawing a parallel with Vietnam (and, implicitly, I think, with World War I),  particular wars that are wrong on political grounds. 
The dramatic flaws in Mother Courage are owing to this same unresolved tension. Brecht may not have been a hypocrite, but his sincerity is a touch hard to believe in.

October 6, 2009 12:58 PM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on October 6, 2009 12:58 PM.

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