Sunday, 14 October 2012

Mother Courage and her children

Greenwich Theatre, 13 October 2012
One of the key moments in Mother Courage. Production photo from Blackeyed Theatre website.
An anti-war satire that escapes its limitations and becomes harrowing thanks to a strong central performance.

By loosely locating their drama during Europe’s Thirty Years War (1618-48), Brecht and Steffin may have wanted to satirise the self-perpetuating logic of war, as they have a parson uncharacteristically put it. Thirty years is a depressingly long time, and the action takes place in only the first half or so of the conflict.
But there are other reasons to set it so specifically, and it’s a pity these weren’t picked up by the authors. Unlike the 1914-18 European war, which was surely guiding their pens, several countries were able to participate in the earlier war without being devastated – some seem to have benefited handsomely, on first glance.
The ordinary person might not have benefited, more likely the opposite, but it wasn’t quite the same situation as after Napoleon’s wars, when tyranny was imposed across most of the war-crushed European population. It is strange that the authors missed the chance to highlight that some of the poor may have done very well out of others’ misery, as this otherwise fits with their overall concept.
In short, if we need a satire on the horrors of the Thirty Years War, we might be better looking at the contemporaneous novels of Grimmelshausen, the source for Mother Courage. This piece works better as a more general satire or exposé of war, though as with other satires it leaves me feeling powerless, rather than angry and likely to do something.
Thankfully, there is a powerful emotional centre to this otherwise cynical drama – the title character, and the noble, fatal, flaws of her children.
Noble? I think so, though this aspect is downplayed in the text. Eilif could be misguidedly heroic, rather than a cunning thug. Swiss Cheese could be naively honest, rather than stupid. And Kattrin could be sensitive and eventually desperate to help someone, rather than sentimental. Each can be seen as a tragic study of courage in a realistic war situation. But except partially for Kattrin, the drama tends to agree with their mother’s view of each of her children. 
Perhaps a director will someday redress this critical authorial misstep. Curiously though, even the title character has proven difficult for some productions, though I think this may have more to do with the star actress usually taking the part.
At little Greenwich Theatre, Janet Greaves showed how to do it.
A great performance, the key being that every word, every move, conveyed the character’s uneducated poverty. Here was a self-possessed woman forced to make her own way in the world, a tough migrant worker desperately hanging on to her children, but losing them through her own errors and through the war that she relies upon.
Whichever actress takes the part, the moment when the mother has to pretend not to recognise her dead son is shattering. But with Greaves there were enough moments to conclusively prove the greatness of this drama lies more in its emotional appeal than its ability to make us think.
All else was excellent, with one small exception: the songs. Most were unmemorable and much worse, the lyrics were generally inaudible. Can future productions emulate Robyn Archer, please?

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