Theatre Review: Mother Courage & Her Children

Posted on: 05 October 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

War is seen as a profitable business enterprise in controversial German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s bleak and pessimistic three hour drama Mother Courage & Her Children, which has been revived in a new production directed by Deborah Warner at the NT’s Olivier auditorium.

Mother Courage, one of the most astonishing creations of the twentieth century, makes a spectacular entrance atop her large cart singing to live music performed by Duke Special and the Band. Her story is told in episodic fashion in twelve scenes which encompass the people she meets on her journey- from farmer and a chaplain to soldiers and a cook- as she drags her cart across the battlefields, profiteering from a war that destroys her children, one by one.

Brecht originally wrote this monumental work whilst in exile from the Third Reich in Sweden in 1939, just as Germany was invading Poland (Sweden and Poland feature in the drama), but the play only received its German premiere in Berlin 10 years later when the city was a wasteland of burnt, rat-infested rubble, ironically in some ways resembling the landscape in Mother Courage. The play, which reveals war as an apocalypse and a human nemesis, is a problematic sort of anti-war drama, given that its climactic, least ambitious and most hopeful moment is  the one in which a town of sleeping people are awakened and summoned to battle against a merciless foe. The great moment of heroism and sacrifice, the great instance of a refusal of obedience to an evil order, is not a refusal to fight but rather a call to arms.

Warner stresses the parallels between the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century, the setting for the drama, and current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan by having soldiers dressed in khaki uniforms and present day attire, carrying guns, and with the help of Tony Kushner’s (Angels in America) modern, colloquial translation which is rather jarring at times.

The production itself is performed on basically a bare stage, save for two large white screens on which are projected dates and place names, and one scene when the wagon sets camp and a long line of washing is visible, reinforcing the gypsy nature of the protagonist’s life.

The drama itself is slow to get underway – the early scenes lack tension and coherence- but once the play gathers momentum, thanks to a powerful central performance by Fiona Shaw in the title role, and also in some measure to the small but excellent on-stage band that prevents the play becoming to didactic and heavy handed, we finally enter the turbulent world of Mother Courage.

A hard slog then but in the end, a rewarding one.

By Laurence Green

Where: NT’s Olivier auditorium

When: Continues in repertory until the 8 December

Box Office: Call 020 7452 3000 or book your tickets online by clicking here.

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