Mother Courage @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Fiona Shaw, Anthony Mark Barrow, William J Cassidy, Johannes Flaschberger, Jonathan Gunthorpe, Stephen Kennedy, Youssef Kerkour, Martin Marquez, Louis McKenzie, Kyle McPhail, Siobhan McSweeney, Harry Melling, Eleanor Montgomery, Stephen OToole, Charlotte Randle, Guy Rhys, Clifford Samuel, Gary Sefton, Roger Sloman, Colin Stinton, Sophie Stone, Morgan Watkins, Sargon Yelda

directed by
Deborah Warner
Deborah Warners production of Brechts sprawling epic has Fiona Shaw playing a buoyant, near flippant Mother Courage.

The piece rarely feels its three and a half hour duration with fantastic performances and a cornucopia of theatrical distractions, but the decision to pepper the piece with new (and corny) songs was a mistake.

As the audience pour into their seats the cast and crew are busying themselves on stage, messing about with sound effects and dancing.

This certainly creates an atmosphere, but more importantly suggests that this play is not divisible from normal life, and therefore has something other than mere entertainment to offer.

Good old Brechtian devices are used such as scrawling place names and introductions to scenes on to the set (albeit with more technical suavity than Brecht had at his disposal), and nothing is kept from the audience.
Sound and visual effects are performed by the actors and costume changes are done on stage, actors almost make a point of interacting with the stage hands between scenes.

The new translation by Tony Kushner is spot on. It never veers into cringe-worthy updating (as the poster of Mother Courage holding a mobile phone led me to dread), or becoming over-poetic, but always remains fresh, consistent and pithy.

As for the performances Fiona Shaw gave us a complex, inscrutable Mother Courage, with no clear clues about what to think or feel about her. The character is frustratingly complex and un-ironable (as is the message of the play) displaying a desperate need to protect her children, at the same time as being forced to have a skewed sense of morality. To save her daughters life Mother Courage pretends not to recognise the blood-drenched corpse of her son. This might seem the morally courageous decision, but moments ago she haggled over the price of that sons life, not prepared to give every penny she had. Shaws performance had an odd air of false modesty as if she was subliminally suggesting her own greatness throughout.

The chaplain was admirably played by Stephen Kennedy. A collation of rationality, faith and distant desire, his delivery was direct, stirring and truthful. As his nemesis Martin Marquez was superb at showing an indefinable kinship with Mother Courage, never overstating his position vocally or bodily. Charlotte Randle, as the prostitute Yvette, provided comic sparkle with her vicious wit, outstripping Shaw for magnetism and stage presence, and leading the audience to imagine a play detailing her own story instead of Mother Courages.

The contrast of having songs interrupt the action certainly does the job of disentangling the audience from their own emotions, as Brecht wanted, but the songs by Duke Special were written and performed in a style incongruent to the quality of this play. They sounded very much like they were cooked up in a teenage bedroom, and were almost enough to distract from the overall impact of this powerful production.

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