Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jun 6 – Jul 26, 2015
Playwright: Bertolt Brecht (translated by Michael Gow)
Director: Eamon Flack
Cast: Paula Arundell, Tom Conroy, Lena Cruz, Michael McStay, Alex Menglet, Arky Michael, Robyn Nevin, Anthony Phelan, Richard Pyros, Hazem Shammas, Emele Ugavule
Images by Heidrun Lohr
It cannot be denied that war is a part of human nature. We can certainly imagine a world with no battles, but history proves that it is in fact inevitable, that people will fight, over religion, money and land, no matter how catastrophic the results may be. We are however, resilient and optimistic, with a survival instinct that does not easily give in to threats and destruction. Bertolt Brecht made the association between capitalism and war, in his seminal work Mother Courage And Her Children, first staged in 1941, during the Second World War. It is concerned with decisions made by individuals in the face of social upheaval at wartime, and characteristically, Brecht had aimed to encourage a specific way of thinking through the play.
Politics is always crucial to discussions and renderings of Brecht’s legacy. He made theatre with the intention of influencing his public about contemporary issues, and whenever productions are materialised today, it is still imperative that a political message is at the core of whatever transpires. Story and politics are intimately bound, and for Brecht’s writing, separation is quite impossible. Michael Gow’s translation provides a newer cadence to the text, but the poetic style of language requires a delivery that is sensitive to the ears of its audience, and the production fails to find a way to connect with our sensibilities and emotions.
Eamon Flack’s direction leaves us confused for long stretches of the show, with unclear depictions of characters, timelines and narratival details. There is a good focus on theatrics, which provides an energetic and colourful atmosphere, but we are never quite certain what the plot is trying to reveal. The iconic use of Brechtian placards are sorely missed in our periods of perplexity. The players engage confidently with each other, and their presences feel authentic, but not enough effort is put into including us in their interactions, which means that we are never able to gain insight into how and why things are happening. The experience is frustrating as events on stage often seem interesting, but we only have access to surfaces. The lack of depth in our understanding, coupled with an emotional detachment makes it increasingly challenging to pay attention as time passes. At 150 minutes, our commitment to participate as an engrossed crowd is thoroughly tested.
Performances in the piece have a quality of confidence and gravity that give the production an unmissable polish. The cast, including leading lady Robyn Nevin, seems well-rehearsed and they rise to the challenge of a show with complex transformations and frequent scene changes that can be wildly different in tone from one another. For the entire duration, the actors are in powerful command of all that happens on stage, even though they rarely create significant impact beyond that periphery. Speech is presented in a naturalistic manner, which is inappropriate for a script that is quite dense and florid. Without sufficient assistance with nuances of the writing, the lines seem to hurry past our consciousness, and characters begin to sound as though mumbling throughout their lives. Paula Arundell leaves the strongest impression in her role of Yvette, with an appealing vivacity that communicates more than the others. Arundell seems to project her portrayal with greater specificity to allow for audience connection, resulting in one of the more successful elements of the production.
It is an expertly designed show, with Benjamin Cisterne’s lights and Robert Cousins’ set creating both an air of theatrical fantasy and wartime grittiness via a surprising minimal approach. That sophistication extends to Stefan Gregory’s delightfully intricate music compositions, which are probably the greatest achievement of this staging. Evocative of Brecht and Kurt Weill’s distinctive style, each interlude provides an opportunity for us to focus on the state of minds and affairs being explored, as they find articulation at a more lyrical pace.
We are in the midst of war when our governments and communities identify explicit enemies, whether asylum seekers, terrorists, paedophiles or drug dealers. As individuals in democracies, our ethical standpoints must always be examined. Bad things happen when good people do nothing, or if they submit to dominant ideologies that are unconscionable. We live in a time where dubious ethics are encouraged, in the name of things like nationalism, or the profit motive. Capitalism can provide an excuse for unjust behaviour, and fabricate permission for bad things to happen. Mother Courage should not be a divisive personality, but on this occasion, we cannot be sure that the right message is consistently delivered, or whether the spectators can even be concerned at all for the moral of her story.