It’s been a busy week for Poland at the National Theatre. First Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s play Our Class confronted the shadowy area of Polish-committed atrocities during WWII. Now Deborah Warner’s production of Mother Courage—its opening delayed for technical purposes in a move that would have surely cut little ice with Brecht himself—depicts a war ravaged Poland during Germany’s Thirty Year War as its sly-witted titular businesswoman traipses after the Swedish Army in her wagon, profiteering from the carnage.
Warner is reunited with Fiona Shaw in Brecht’s difficult 1939 masterpiece about the Faustian pact between capitalism and conflict in a production based on Tony Kushner's robust, colloquial translation. Yet while it’s easy to admire the National for being timely as an increasingly shapeless war rages on in Afghanistan, it’s hard to think of a time when Brecht’s anti-war play wouldn’t feel relevant. As the programme notes point out, there have been over 250 major wars since 1945. The trick then is surely to reveal its more subtle ambiguities. Despite its desolate, apocalyptic atmosphere, Warner’s epic-shaped production feels lacking in moral tension.
Warner makes the huge Olivier stage feel even larger than usual, stripping back almost to the far wall and, apart from the odd pyrotechnic explosion, dispensing aptly enough with frills and fripperies. A synopsis on a banner heralds the start of each scene and the set consists largely of written descriptions—the General’s Tent, etc. Yet if Warner employs Brecht’s famed alienation techniques, she’s certainly not out to emotionally detach her audience from what is a determinedly invoked, pitiless vision of war. The mood is heavily somber, the play’s comic elements largely suppressed. In their place is an original, elegiac Gothic cabaret score courtesy of indie band Duke Special, which, as the war goes on and the bodies mount up, increasingly resembles the lonely lament of a ghost filled graveyard.
Warner grimly captures if not the banality then certainly the near inevitable futility of a war fought ostensibly for religious purposes. In one excellent, savagely ironic scene, Shaw’s Mother gets out a statue of the Virgin Mary and chucks a crucifix round the necks of her children in a failed attempt to appease the rampaging Catholic army. Yet Shaw remains the production’s sticking point; she simply cannot find enough chameleon swagger to fill this most enormous of roles. (Her lack of theatrical braggadocio is particularly exposed during the odd musical number when she takes the mike. Shaw may be a great actress but she’s no rock star.). Nor does she have enough of a handle on Mother Courage’s many elusive contradictions that lavish co-existence of hard-wired pragmatism, gleeful amorality and maternal responsibility. She does silent grief beautifully, but you never really feel she’d steal the gold from your teeth as you lay dying.
There’s good support—from Peter Gowan as the Chaplain, Harry Melling as the goofy Swiss Cheese and most notably from Sophie Stone, whose mute Kattrin is full of pain and heartbreaking humanity. Still, it’s hard to believe in the final scene that this Mother, as she furiously drags her wagon alone through the ruined battlefields that offer no consolation, truly prefers war to peace. This is surely as it should be, but the problem remains that, while we are moved by this production, we are rarely challenged.