Usually, when I see a play, I know whether I like it or not, and whether or not I think it well staged. I must admit that I am at a loss regarding Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage”. I wish I had seen other versions of it previously. Then, perhaps I could put this one in context.
The scene is the 17th century – the 30 Years War rampages central Europe, dynasty against dynasty, Catholic against Protestant, it ebbs and flows, destroying the continent as it works its way from place to place. Will it ever end? Perhaps not. And if it does, what next? Probably a short period of peace, followed by another war. After all, this is what humanity does to keep from being bored, no?
While one army or another is marauding the towns, only Mother Courage is constant. With her cart filled with goods to sell to the army in control at that particular time, she is the ultimate survivor. But she is not alone – she has her three children (each by a different father) – her manly soldier-wannabe, her somewhat slow but helpful “Swiss Cheese” and her pretty daughter who, unfortunately, has never been able to speak and towards whom she is quite protective. Her only goal is to get through the war with her three children still by her side.
The play is performed at the Arena in the round, with minimal scenery in an overwhelming setting of greys and browns. Kathleen Turner is Mother Courage – dominating the production with a slow, breathy staccato delivery. The remainder of the cast is strong.
Wikipedia calls this production is an “arrangement” by playwright David Hare. The Arena’s program calls it a “translation”. A review of the play twenty years ago in The Independent (a British paper) says that Hare “has written this version from a literal translation by the excellent Anthony Meech”). I am not sure. And, because I don’t know the play outside of this production, I don’t know how much of this is Brecht, and how much is Hare. I don’t know how much leeway has been taken in this production.
Brecht apparently wrote this play very quickly – in about a month. Germany had just invaded Poland, and the Soviet Union (Germany’s “ally”) had just moved into Poland and Lithuania from the east. But it was not the start of a war. It was the continuation of a war that had started in 1914, and that looked like it would never end. Just a small break over the last twenty years (and not a complete break – skirmishes here and there, coups and takeovers here and there in the interim), not a new war. The 30 Years War redux.
There is music in this play, ten songs written by James Sugg, apparently new for this production. I don’t even know whether there was music in the Brecht original – in the 1995 Hare version in London, there was music, but it was different music. Sugg’s score went well with the production – sort of like Kurt Weill’s music for Brecht’s “Three Penny Opera” (although I am tempted to say, based on this alone, “James Sugg, you are no Kurt Weill”…..but I won’t).
Mother Courage, the character, is not particularly sympathetic. You don’t look at her as an innocent or a victim. She is clearly a survivor, and a low scale war profiteer. Like many parents out to protect their children, she fails miserably in this regard. Yet at the end of the play, she is the same Mother Courage she was in the first scene, surviving and moving along.
I must say that I did not like the way the play ended – I thought the last fifteen minutes or so could have gone off in a different direction. Again, was it Brecht or Hare? Again, I don’t know.
I have not seen any reviews yet (the play’s first performance was over last weekend), and am interested in seeing what the critics say. Should you see it? Sure. Is it a theatrical event of your lifetime? No.