Mother Courage, National Theatre, November 2009

This play by Bertolt Brecht — Mother Courage and her Children — was written very swiftly after the German invasion of Poland that year, but is set in the period of the thirty-year war from 1618 to 1648. It deals with a shrewd canteen woman who follows the troops across northern Germany, making a living from the business of war. At one point there is an ending of hostilities, which distresses her since she has just stocked up with provisions, whose value will rapidly fall. But in fact the war carries on, and the action is contained in twelve years during the middle of the war, represented in twelve scenes. An important technique used by Brecht is his Verfremdungseffect (alienation effect), which he says “prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor, and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer”. This is achieved by the use of very simple props and scenery, often named by placards, and using the same actors in varied roles. It works in the sense that we are observers who remain unmoved by some of the terrible events that occur. Nor indeed do we feel any sympathy with Mother Courage herself, who was brilliantly played by Fiona Shaw. Her wily toughness comes over as part of her personality, rather than a survival mechanism, but who is to say? Her mute daughter Kattrin was well portrayed by Sophie Stone, and her younger son, the simple but honest Swiss Cheese was beautifully played by Harry Melling.

There is not a single character for whom one really feels much sympathy, and the dark side of war is ever-present. The play was well directed by Deborah Warner, with songs by Duke Special and ‘musicscape’ by Mel Mercier. The fine translation was by Tony Kushner, and the narrator’s voice was that of Gore Vidal, whose extremely bleak view of war, seeing it as a way of balancing the budget, was quoted in the programme. It was rather odd to have a variety of accents, American for Vidal, Irish for both Mother Courage and Stephen Kennedy as the chaplain, and English for most of the cast, but in some ways this conveyed a sense of internationalism to business carried on by other means, and aided the Verfremdungseffect desired by Brecht.

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