Review: Mother Courage and Her Children (Belvoir)

 Brecht’s cynical tale of the struggles of war and the dehumanising nature of capitalism provides fleeting enjoyment but fails to satisfy.

Belvoir Theatre, Sydney
June 20, 2015

Belvoir’s most anticipated production of the 2015 season was poised for success with director Eamon Flack’s acclaim as the ‘up-and-coming’ artistic director of Belvoir and Robyn Nevin’s reputation as one of Australia’s most accomplished actresses. However Flack’s speciality in emotional engagement clashed with Brecht’s estrangement theory, resulted in a production of momentary interest that fell short in delivering artistic satisfaction.

Brecht’s Modernist play is set during Europe’s “Thirty Years’ War” but written during the reign of Nazism. The nihilistic tone is established from the outset, and is consistent throughout the play. The mood of the production can be summarised by the Courage’s declaration “The world’s dying out”. In addition to being a scathing testament to the cruelties of war, Mother Courage is also a fierce criticism of German Capitalism.

Brecht’s writing style can be encapsulated by his mantra, “Art Is Not a Mirror to Reflect Reality, but a Hammer to Shape It”. He championed a form of political theatre known as ‘Epic Theatre’, in which he aimed for the audience to analyse the play and its ideas rather than empathise with the characters. This ‘distancing effect’ sought to highlight the constructed and fictional nature of theatre. This was done in Mother Courage through musical numbers, and by having each actor, except Nevin, play multiple roles. Anti-realism is also achieved through the use of a split stage, specifically in the reunion between Courage and her son, Eiliff. Such techniques provide for dramatic irony as the audience is aware of significant events before the characters, such as when Swiss Cheese’s death is withheld from Courage.

Brecht’s script, aided by Gow’s translation, estranges the audience, highlighting the constructed nature of theatre by rapidly seguing between serious dialogue and vaudevillian show tunes. Lighting and sound (by Benjamin Cisterne and Stefan Gregory) allow for a hasty change between genres, creating a jarring and fragmented feel. Moments of emotional pathos are quickly avoided, creating an unsatisfying experience for the audience. Although admirable of Flack to attempt the work of one of the world’s most acclaimed playwrights, he falls short in delivering Belvoir’s promise of “an epic fable of survival and song”. His emotionally sensitive directing style (evidenced in 2014’s incredibly moving production of The Glass Menagerie), is simply incompatible with Brecht’s- which avoids emotional confrontation altogether.

Brecht’s use of song has developed from Shakespeare’s soliloquies, in key moments, a single character takes the spotlight, sharing their memories, fears, and advice. The vaudevillian musical allows jarring themes to be explored without melodrama. Individuals take center stage, with the ‘chorus’ performing back up with Piano, guitar, drums or vocals. Special mention goes to Paula Arundell’s haunting cabaret-esque solo.

The set designer, Robert Cousins, developed a sparse, multi- purpose, unrealistic set. Most scenes are based around a large cart- Mother Courage’s home and shop. This impressive set piece is wheeled around by the cast, and often indicates scene transitions. The vibrant red paint and gaudy carnival-esque lights seem incongruous with the depressing context. The shiny cart, and minimalist white walls emphasise the production’s unrealistic style. The classy looking cart also highlights a key aspect of Courage’s personality- her resourceful entrepreneurial nature. The appeal of the cart is quickly undermined by the overall set layout, which looks incomplete and tacky. The mostly white stage is ruined by the conspicuous black corner, which acts as a ‘backstage area’, holding props and unimportant characters. This aspect of the stage held no storyline significance and just felt lazy and untidy.

Each performance was strong, and the comparatively large cast (for Belvoir) managed to work together surprisingly well. Their movements, particularly in scene change, were well rehearsed and tight. The Director, Flack, nicely balanced the movements of the ensemble in the background without distracting attention from the central action. Some characters in the script, like the Young Soldier and the Clerk felt unnecessary, failing to aid in delivering the message of the story. Nevin was a formidable Courage, like a steam train that charges ahead regardless of barriers. However her lack of emotional reaction following the death of her son, although scripted by Brecht in this way, made her feel incomplete and two dimensional. The show was stolen by newcomer and recent NIDA graduate Emele Ugavule, who brought an astounding amount of determination and anguish to her character that, although mute, refused to be silenced.

Alice Babidge’s costumes are eerily contemporary- old mismatched clothes that could be found at the local Vinnies. The modernisation of the outfits make the 20th century story more accessible for today’s audience. However the numerous costume changes sometimes made it hard to keep track of who was who.

Belvoir’s production provides an informative outline to Brecht’s style and with decent performances from all, gives an agreeable, if forgettable, night out.

Jo Bradley

3 stars

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