Glasgow in the 1980’s was known as the Brecht Capital of Europe. At any time, odds were there would be at least one Brecht play in production. Leading the way was the Citizens Theatre under the directorship of Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David McDonald. A Brecht play was guaranteed most seasons, and that is where I first saw Mother Courage and her Children. Sadly, the sands of time have erased my recollection of that production, and Brecht seemed to fall from fashion as Thatcherism made his questioning of power and economic relationships seem old-fashioned.
But in recent years he has come back with a bang in a series of productions (Life of Galileo at the National, Good Woman of Szechuan at the Young Vic) which have revealed not only his intellectual power, but also his humour and daring as a dramatist. Now Mother Courage has dragged her cart across the Olivier Stage in yet another revelatory production.
The Olivier is denuded, all scenery removed, stage hands visible where the wings should be. Gore Vidal intones Brecht’s stage directions, setting the scene amongst the bored troops of Sweden during the Thirty Years War. To a crescendo of music Mother Courage enters on the cart drawn by her sons. Fiona Shaw as Courage takes up a microphone and starts singing, looking for the world like Edward Tudor-Pole on Top of the Pops. Shaw may not be the world’s best singer or dancer, but she radiates charisma and hers is an upbeat indomitable Courage.
This is a long piece, structured around 12 scenes from each of a 12 year period in the midst of the 30 Years War, during which Courage and her family follow first one army then another making a living from trading the contents of their wagon. The futility of war is revealed in the banality of the economic relations which prevail. A deal with a recruiting officer takes her son Eiliff (Clifford Samuel) into the army. Her other son Swiss Cheese (Harry Melling) becomes army paymaster, but is captured. Courage bargains too hard for his life and he is killed. Mute daughter Kattrin (the excellent Sophie Stone) is disfigured in an attack by a soldier, and thus loses her value as a potential wife. The Cook (Martin Marquez) wants Courage to escape with him to an Inn in Utrecht that he has inherited, but refuses to take Kattrin with him as well as she will frighten the customers. Courage decides to stay. Kattrin is finally killed alerting a town to the advancing troops, in the single act of altruism that we see. Mother Courage is left to drag her wagon by herself.
This is a play that was born in a time of war, and there are more parallels with recent events, but there is never the sense that these are being forced on the audience. One is left to make the connection with profiteers such Krupp, IG Farben and Haliburton oneself. Ideologies are cheap - a change of shirt, and the pastor becomes a priest - and life becomes devoid of value. It is a short step to the Blasted of Sarah Kane.
But this is not a bleak play. Brecht is always an amusing writer, and Fiona Shaw extracts every ounce of humour in a sparkling performance, ably supported by all around her. The music, by Irish rocker Duke Special, didn’t always work, but to my surprise I found myself humming the main theme on the way home. The sparse staging with projected directions and Gore Vidal’s intonations not only remained true to Brecht’s Verfremsdungeffekt, but gave a potentially baggy piece a great sense of unity.
This was an adventurous, clever production of one of the great plays of the 20th Century.