Friday, July 17, 2015

Mother Courage and her Children by Bertolt Brecht

Image by Julian Meagher

Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Michael Gow.  Belvoir, Sydney, directed by Eamon Flack.  Designer: Robert Cousins; costumes by Alice Babidge; lighting by Benjamin Cisterne; fight choreographer: Scott Witt.  At Belvoir St Theatre Upstairs, June 10 – July 26, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
July 15

Photos by Heidrun Lohr

Robyn Nevin as Mother Courage

Robyn Nevin as Mother Courage

I feel like scrawling “Robyn Nevin” all over the page like graffiti on a war-damaged wall, in recognition of her tour de force in this production.  It would be completely unfair, of course, since it was Brecht who made her be on stage for just about every scene, except when she has to dash off briefly for more supplies – only to return that time to find her mute daughter Kattrin shot.  Which reminds me, Emele Ugavule is on stage as much as her mother, with a presence as telling, though she cannot speak.  Hers is another tour de force which reminds me that this play is about the strength of character of women in wartime, in the face of the weakness of character in men – even including Kattrin’s half-brothers, Eilif – Richard Pyros and Swiss Cheese – Tom Conroy.

Richard Pyros (Eilif), Emele Ugavule (Kattrin), Tom Conroy (Swiss Cheese)
Robyn Nevin (Mother Courage)
Mother Courage and her Children

In fact, I should not forget that all the actors are on stage for much more than you might realise, since they all play ‘others’ as well as their named parts: Yvette – Paula Arundell, Sergeant – Lena Cruz, Young Soldier – Michael McStay, General – Alex Menglet, Cook – Arky Michael, Chaplain – Anthony Phelan, Clerk – Hazem Shammas, as well as Pyros and Conroy.

And they are all terrific musicians and singers.  In other words, there’s not much ‘alienation effect’ in this production; just a tremendous sense of community teamwork.

Robyn Nevin and Cast in song

The result is the best Mother Courage  I’ve seen.  There was an energy and life from go to whoa.  We didn’t need be slowed down by the ‘literalisation’ of the theatre, with lengthy post-it notes above the stage at the beginning of each scene, like SPRING, 1624.  IN DALARNA, THE SWEDISH COMMANDER OXENSTIERNA IS RECRUITING FOR THE CAMPAIGN IN POLAND.  THE CANTEEN WOMAN ANNA FIERLING, COMMONLY KNOWN AS MOTHER COURAGE, LOSES A SON. [Eric Bentley translation, Methuen, 1962]. 

All we need is a flash like a small lightning bolt to shift us into the next scene.  The story tells itself, in an effective translation – which incidentally does not seem very different from Eric Bentley’s even though I’m aware that his work was superseded for approval by the Brecht Estate in later times by Hugh MacDiarmid, John Willett, Howard Brenton and David Hare.  Perhaps Michael Gow has managed to smooth a path around the experience of David Hare in 2004 when his translation of Galileo was refused publication by the Brecht Estate.  Since then Stefan Brecht has died, in 2009.  I hope Gow’s Mother Courage will make it to the bookshelves (though probably not those of Bookshelves Brandis, I guess). 

See [] for some background reading.

Arky Michael as Cook and Robyn Nevin as Mother Courage

Emele Ugavule as Kattrin and Tom Conroy as Swiss Cheese

Paula Arundell as Yvette before taking up with the General

Robyn Nevin as Mother Courage with the Cook's pipe, and
Paula Arundell as Yvette after taking up with the General

Emele Ugavule as Kattrin trying to dress like Yvette

Emele Ugavule as Kattrin, drumming to alert the town of impending attack

What Eamon Flack and his team have achieved is a real sense of war and the horror (for Anna Fierling) of peace when she has just accepted the Chaplain’s advice that the war will go on, more or less forever, and she buys up on stock to sell at the army camps on both sides.  We don’t need to know that this is the Thirty Years’ War of 17th Century Germany.  We can be certain it’s the same story in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan today, as it was in Vietnam etc. etc. etc.

I’m a little late in the run, but you have another week to get yourself to Sydney.  Just go to first to make sure there’s room.

[Conflict of Interest Note:  The Brecht Estate would not let me use Eric Bentley’s translation of The Threepenny Opera in 1976.  Only Hugh MacDiarmid was acceptable at the time.]