Chaos theory: Belvoir’s Mother Courage and Her Children

Two particular things happened at the beginning of this year: I sat down with director Eamon Flack for a discussion about his work, process, and intentions as incoming artistic director of Belvoir; and I saw a Korean pansori production of Brecht’s Mother CourageUkchuk-ga – at the Sydney Festival. Without wanting to jinx Flack’s production so early on in the year, I believed Ukchuk-ga to be one of those transcendent productions where you leave the theatre exhilarated, an emotional wreck because of its story, stagecraft, and the simplicity of its craft. And I still firmly believe that. Enter, then, Flack’s production of Mother Courage and Her Children for Belvoir. In January, as in his notes in the program, he talked about his desire to bring a taste of the global sense of chaos to Sydney in 2015, and trying to figure out how to do that in a theatrical way. And while he does this to an extent, this Mother Courage feels strangely empty, as though something is missing from it, and I still don’t know what it is, several weeks and two viewings later.

Mother Courage is perhaps Brecht’s most well-known play, written immediately prior to the Second World War in 1939, and first performed in 1941, in the ruins of a “failed thousand-year empire,” as Flack says. Set in the seventeenth century, it is the story of Anna Fierling – or ‘Mother Courage’ as she is known – as she follows the Swedish Army during the Thirty Years’ War, eking out a living selling food and provisions to the soldiers. As Flack sees it, the play is not so much about war, but about the chaos and lawlessness of war, “the vile mix of economic and superstitious forces – the terrible mix of material scarcity and human fear – on both sides.” And we certainly get that in Michael Gow’s fresh new translation.
Gow’s skill here is to trim Brecht’s script down slightly, to get rid of the dead wood in it, and spin it in a contemporary idiom which doesn’t grate or jar but rather enlivens – reinvigorate – the play. In almost every respect Gow succeeds, but the play still feels sluggish in the last fifteen minutes of Act One, even on second viewing two weeks into its run. Flack directed Gow’s latest play – Once In Royal David’s City – at Belvoir last year; the final scene is a terrific monologue – essentially, a lesson to a group of Year Eleven students – about Brecht and his Verfremdungseffekt theory (more commonly known as ‘the alienation effect’ or ‘the distancing effect.’) What Gow makes clear in this monologue is that the preconception of the ‘alienation effect’ – that we’re not meant to feel anything – is actually wrong. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: it’s not so much about not-feeling, but rather about taking an audience out of the emotional pull of the moment so we can critically reflect on it, so we can understand the characters’ motivations and errors on an intellectual level – that is, so we can gain intellectual empathy, and perhaps even try to change the world a bit. That is what Brecht was on about. But in this Mother Courage, the feeling is missing, the emotion is missing. That’s not to say that the cast don’t play with heart and gusto, and there are some terrific moments here, but the whole piece feels a bit subdued. Some scenes feel as though their natural (emotional) end point – i.e. their point of release or catharsis – has been truncated in order to create the kind of intellectual distance assumed to be propounded by Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt concept. The result is a weirdly cold and underwhelming piece of theatre which does not engage as much as it might; as much as it should.
Robert Cousins’ set is a bare-bones white box rehearsal type set, with a pile of props and musical instruments in the back corner. Alice Babidge’s costumes – a mismatched assortment of faded and discarded clothing, army jackets, and polyester – grounds the production in a dystopian kind of near-present, a place where chaos is very much present and where peace is only temporary. Mother Courage’s cart is here turned into a bright red fast-food type truck, pulled by her two sons, and later by herself. Decked out with speakers and lights, it at first seems a gaudy beast among the sparse set, almost too big for Belvoir’s corner stage, but it blends in to become just another part of the landscape, a lumbering elephant which no one dares to attack. It is also, curiously, in near-pristine condition, even though Mother Courage and her children have been tramping the countryside for the past seventeen years selling wares from their cart – surely there would be more evidence of the wars on it than this? As much as the design is effective in conjuring a sense of chaos, dislocation, and displacement – we are in no specific physical place, just as we are in no specific time period – it is also discombobulating: we know there is a war going on, we know the landscape has been ruined, but we don’t see (and barely hear) any evidence of it apart from a bit of violence and a smattering of stage-blood. There is no grit to this landscape – or perhaps not enough, besides a dirtying of clothes, occasional rips and tears, a spattering of mud, blood and sweat on faces; even a scattering of rubble, a gravel floor, a crumbling wall would have been enough to give us a sense of the landscape Mother Courage and her children are journeying across, the kind of terrain they battle with their cart.
Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting is almost stark fluorescence at times, and richly coloured at others, particularly during the musical numbers, and creates a sense of mood, temperature, and ruin through a brief gesture of colour and/or brightness. Stefan Gregory’s songs are tremendous – with several obvious (and welcome) nods to Kurt Weill; however, as they are performed on stage with a piano, drums, guitars, and at times an accordion, they tend to overwhelm the already-amplified voices. The sound design – drones, rumbles, distant gunfire, explosions – while loud, are still perhaps too quiet to be truly effective, truly indicative of chaos having entered the theatre.
Led by Robyn Nevin, Flack’s cast are all rather strong. Nevin’s Mother Courage is like a wily old fox – she’s been around the traps long enough to know how to play the game, and she gives as good as she gets, but there’s something missing from her Courage, perhaps some of the dogged fierceness, which could make her fly. Richard Pyros’ Eilif is strong and dignified, while Tom Conroy’s Swiss Cheese is honest and sincere. Emele Ugavule’s Katrin, unable to speak, is the quiet observer, the silent witness to the horrors of war; her final moments on the roof of the hut are harrowing, and her subsequent death is nicely underplayed. Paula Arundell’s Yvette is a husky-voiced singer; Lena Cruz is a fierce sergeant whom I wouldn’t like to cross; Michael McStay’s passion and indignation as the young soldier are moving, as is his subsequent resignation. Alex Menglet’s General is gruff, all bluster and wind, but all too human; Hazem Shammas’ clerk is quiet and dignified, his soldier fierce but compassionate. Arky Michael’s cook is a loud energetic pipe-smoking rascal, but even his resignation in the peacetime is moving. Anthony Phelan’s chaplain is a close cousin to his Wally in Once In Royal David’s City, and his song is quite moving.
In Flack’s director’s notes, he talks about how Brecht had to invent new theatrical ways to keep up with Europe’s (and the world’s) capacity for cruelty. “Whereas Oscar Wilde had perfected profound flippancy, Brecht invented grim vaudeville… So when the time came to stare down the marauding horror of another war, he didn’t blink. He wrote a musical fable about a woman who was at her best in war… It is surprised and yet furious, pessimistic and yet optimistic, awful and yet funny, grim and yet exuberant, unforgiving yet unjudging… What could have been a simple anti-war tract [became] a bizarre danse macabre – a vision of the raw impulses of modernity.” This is where Mother Courage’s power comes from, where its capacity to move an audience comes from.

In Flack’s Courage, however, the desire to show the bleakness and cruelness of war on stage, as well as humanity’s strength and optimism, the faith which keeps us going is a tall order for any production to do. And while Flack, his cast and design team do succeed in some respects – a strong contemporary translation, a strong cast, effective lighting – ultimately it is not quite the epic celebration of humanity’s depth and breadth we were expecting. Perhaps the most lasting impression in this Courage is the reminder that war can turn the tables on all of us, that we can all become Mother Courage or Katrin in an instant, and chaos is only a heartbeat away. Like Courage herself, Brecht’s play will keep dragging its cart through the theatrical landscape long after this audience has passed away.

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