Where’s Your Courage?: Review of Belvoir’s Mother Courage and Her Children
Mother Courage and Her Children (1939) is considered by many to be Bertolt Brecht’s masterpiece, as well as one of the most important plays of the twentieth century. It tells the story of Mother Courage, a business savvy canteen lady, as she tries to bring her children through the war whilst making a tidy profit along the way. Of course, her business dealings end up playing a role in the deaths of each of her children. Unfortunately, it is one of those great plays that almost never plays great. This production might be said to fit into this category.
Of course, Epic Theatre is not everyone’s cup of tea. The Alienation effect, done right, can be alienating, making it difficult to empathize with what’s happening on stage. Mother Courage is itself a challenging piece, and at three hours in length, if every engine isn’t firing it can make for tiresome viewing. To Eamon Flack’s credit, he has put together a well-designed show. The piece has been broadly updated: the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century now has the look and feel of a Russian invasion into the Ukraine, although location and setting is left ambiguous. This is undoubtedly the right decision, as the play is meant to operate as an allegory: its relatability and translatability should be fluid of time and space. And if there’s one thing that will never change, its society’s capacity for conducting war, whether it’s the seventeenth century, the Second World War or today. Brecht had intended for his plays to be the catalyst to enact social change. How successful this has been is difficult to say, but Mother Courage is still sadly relevant today.
Although Flack presents a fairly straight interpretation of the piece, the design can hardly be faulted. From the cheerful red wagon that Mother Courage operates from, to the black approximation of the backstage area where the cast change costume and perform songs, everything feels in place. However, there were limitations to this production, mainly to be found in the musical numbers, and some of the performances. Mother Courage has often been referred to as the female King Lear. In the present production, there is some irony to this. In 2012, Robyn Nevin played the title role in Queen Lear, a spectacular bust of a piece, directed and ‘adapted’ by Rachel McDonald into a half-baked Shakespearean flop. Of Nevin, it was said that her performance suffered from the lack of directorial vision, though, every now and then sparks of brilliance shot out into the darkness. Now as the ‘female King Lear’, she has not gotten away so easily. Nevin doesn’t appear to know how to embody this tireless entrepreneur, beyond the rough-and-tumble and verbal jousting. Certainly, Nevin rattles through her homespun philosophy as would a travelling salesman who fears his act will go dry if he ever slows down. But by all accounts, the performance is evidence of an actor straining to inhabit an ill-fitting role. Perhaps Nevin herself is tired. Mother Courage demands everything of an actress – physical and vocal prowess, dramatic and comic expertise, yet Nevin seems unable to meet this demand. Nevin struggles uncomfortably through the songs (and appears at times not to know the lyrics) and seems to have forgotten the need for pace, pause and annunciation. The comedy she pulls off well enough and, for a few brief moments, there are some dramatic heights, but overwhelmingly, Mother Courage tends to lack her courage. It is possible that Nevin’s wrong foot has had a ripple effect on the rest of the cast.
Certainly, some individual performances are solid, but there lacked an air of Brechtian comradery between them. Generally though, the younger members of the cast better managed the play. They were perhaps less fazed and as a result, better focussed on fostering the emotional authenticity of the piece. This was the case for Richard Pyros as Eilif, Courage’s eldest son and Tom Conroy as Swiss Cheese, Courage’s youngest son, with Pyros demonstrating an excellent set of pipes during the songs. Emele Ugavule was also particularly affecting as Courage’s mute daughter. Her performance of the battered-beaten-and-bruised-by-life Kattrin was beautifully restrained. Paula Arundell was nicely grounded as the camp prostitute Yvette Pottier, and her rendition of ‘The Fraternization Song’ was demonstrative of how Brecht’s songs should be done (achieving the necessary combination of detachment and engagement). This could also be said of Anthony Phelan as the Chaplain, whose ‘Song of The Hours’ achieved a ghostly growl enough to move mountains. Double points must be given to Phelan who was particularly adept at the comedic stylings and the bumbling cheek of the Chaplain. The rest of the cast was solid in various roles, (Lena Cruz, Michael McStay, Alex Menglet and Hazem Shammas), though Arky Michael was a bit lacklustre as Puffing Pete, the Cook.
Flack clearly knows his material, but the production needed stronger performances and tighter ensemble work during the musical interludes. Given a Broadway budget and a cast to match, this could have been an amazing show. Mother Courage and Her Children is playing at Belvoir Street Theatre until the 26th of July. For more information see: http://belvoir.com.au/productions/mother-courage-and-her-children/