Monday, 2 June 2014

Mother Courage and Her Children: The Festival's Sleeper Hit

Mother Courage and Her Children
Stratford Festival
By Bertolt Brecht
Directed by Martha Henry
May 30-September 21
Festival Theatre
Approximate running time: 2 hours, 41 minutes (with one 15 interval)

If the mere mention of the name Bertolt Brecht or the phrase anti-war conjures up visions of a sombre night at the Festival, be not afraid of venturing into the Tom Patterson Theatre for a look of Martha Henry’s surprisingly buoyant and beautifully realized Mother Courage and Her Children.
While still very much true to the playwright’s intent – fired by his intense hatred of the German Nazi regime of his time, from which he found exile in several European countries – the work under director Henry re-discovers and exploits a great deal of its innate humour from a variety of sources – roaming minstrels, a touch of pre-performance mingling a la the Swinging Sixties with audience members and heart-felt, humanistic performances from the acting company.
Rather than create a work that plays out during the Second World War, Brecht set the play in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), a bloody conflict initially waged by Catholic and Protestant states over purely religious interests.
Mother Courage (a beautifully honest portrayal by Seana McKenna) is a tireless canteen woman, pulling her cart throughout war-ravaged Europe, aided by her three children – E.B. Smith’s sturdy Ellif, Carmen Grant’s mute Kattrin and Antoine Yared’s bookish, timid and oddly-named Swiss Cheese.
It’s an odd way of making a living, particularly in light of the fact Mother Courage makes no distinction over which army she does business with, alternately changing flags on her creaky vehicle and ultimately making a profit from the horrors of the seemingly endless war. At least superficially, she appears unmoved by the conflict, choosing neither side over her business interests.
McKenna is simply magnificent in the role – at one moment an earthy hard-bitten no nonsense businesswomen out to make ends meet for herself and her brood but yet, particularly in the revealing second act, displaying flashes of recognizing, almost recoiling at the brutality she either experiences or learns from second- hand sources. Death becomes considerably more personal as the play moves forward.
Smith, Grant and Yared are solid and effective in their key roles – offering more than simple one-dimensional characterizations, in effect, with their mother, underscoring the humanity of Brecht’s work.
The first act, offering considerably more of a humorous backdrop, also features a tidy selection of musical entries, under the guidance of musical director Franklin Brasz and a delightful sprightly band of instrumentalists/vocalists that both lighten the mood and offer a clever complement to the playwright’s words.
Supporting characters like Geraint Wyn Davies’ incurably ‘randy’ cook and Ben Carlson’s oft time confused chaplain are top-notch, while the regal vocal stylings of Stephen Russell as the stern regimental clerk adding the perfunctory sense of the all-pervasive military dictating the lives of all who come under its control.
For Henry, this is a triumph over what could have conceivably turned very much into a one-note production with simple musical interludes. Such is not the case. The blend of drama, tragedy, with splashes of humour is superbly handled, with the second act, particularly the poignant closing moments, evolving into an uncompromising visual poem that is truly moving.
Unquestionably one of the greatest anti-war plays ever written; this production bristles with life even if only barely visible amidst the rising toll of death and social disintegration. Mother Courage and Her Children may well be and quite frankly deserves to be the sleeper hit of the Stratford Festival 2014 season.
5 stars

Photo. Fom left to right: Seana McKenna, Geraint Wyn Davies and Ben Carlson. Photography by Don Dixon with digital art by Krista Dodson.
This review also appeared online at Donald's Dish.

No comments:

Post a Comment