Mother Courage is by no means a sympathetic figure and it is made pretty clear that her pursuit of profit from the conflict is the cause of, not only her own, suffering.
“Patchy” was the verdict, on Brecht’s Mother Courage, of one of a brace of identikit crones perched on the sun terrace at the National Theatre. “I couldn’t hear the songs at all,” chipped in the second crone, “although I think I would have liked them if I could.” You’ve probably seen such crones yourself: they wear flowing skirts, capped sleeve T-shirts (from Monsoon) and their hair is set in brutal ridges. Having opined thus upon Deborah Warner’s production in the Olivier, their conversation quickly moved onto car insurance.
Von Clausewitz considered war to be the continuation of politics by other means and predicted the 20th century’s two ‘total’ wars by reasoning that the very nature of competition would eventually force participants to use all resources at their disposal. In Tony Kushner’s new translation of Brecht’s play, the 1618-1648 30 years war means business as usual for Mother Courage and her children as they trail across Europe, in their pedlars’ wagon, in the wake of the armies, only to discover that the associated risks and costs of this kind of business are total. Fiona Shaw gives a lively, mischievous performance in the title role and there is nothing patchy about the eventual breaking of her seemingly indomitable spirit.
The staging is suitably Brechtian: crew and stage management can be seen in and around the Olivier’s cavernous stage and each new location is established with minimum clutter and effective use of projection. A recording of Gore Vidal’s wonderfully gravelly voice narrates the scene headings and most of the music and sound effects are generated live on stage.
Tony Kushner includes an interesting discussion on Brecht’s attitude to war in his program notes and the production itself could be regarded as an extension of this debate: Mother Courage is by no means a sympathetic figure and it is made pretty clear that her pursuit of profit from the conflict is the cause of, not only her own, suffering. On the other hand, her surname is hardly meaningless, nobody suffers from the war more than her and she is still on her feet and pulling her wagon when the curtain comes down. I do hope she’s got it insured.
Mother Courage runs until 8 December.