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Mother Courage at the National Theatre

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by Kat Parr Mackintosh (subscribe)
Young and coffee in varying degrees, Kat also says stuff @ThoroughlyMode
2009 is the right time for 'Mother Courage and her Children', a play originally penned by Bertolt Brecht in 1939; because though the main argument that runs alongside any revival of this play is whether or not it's an anti-war play, it is undoubtedly a play not just set during a war, it's also a play about war.

Specifically it's set during The Thirty Years War, but Mother Courage is not a solider or a combatant, she's also not just a mother, she's a commercially minded woman looking to make money off the war by following around the column of marching soldiers on her cart, selling food and comfort. This particular war gradually strangled the inhabitants of several European countries, but Mother Courage is a character set to turning the tragedy going on around her into financial security for herself and her three children. And for a while at least if seems as if she's going to be one of the few 'winners' caught up in a conflict that's un-winnable for 99% of those it touches.

There are peaks, but this is a play of greater troughs. But while you could call the material bleak, and you could at times accuse this production of being sparse, attending this play is not a harrowing, or even particularly depressing experience, it's more revealing than anything else. As the years fly by on stage and the ravages of war lap closer at Courage's person and resolve, the beautiful stubbornness of the human spirit is unpeeled like an onion skin, and as each layer's removed she just keeps on keeping on. As do many of the characters around her, surviving any way they know how. Which is why it's so 2009.

The main role of Courage is almost perfectly pragmatically played, with fluctuating verve and grit by Fiona Shaw, whose long, and surely energy sapping, performance mirrors Courage's journey. Sophie Stone as 'Kattrin' has an almost equally long and arduous acting journey ahead of her every night Kattrin is in almost every scene, but the character is dumb but Stone rises to the occasion. As do the rest of the cast.

The National Theatre's 2009 production, directed by Deborah Warner has made a couple of unique additions to the 2006 translation from the German original. One of the actors does the sound effects for the war scenes using his own voice, augmented by shrapnel spewing explosions, and there's a rather beautiful live musical soundtrack performed by Duke Special . Brecht may or may not have thought his story leant itself to song, but if he's able to hear it from beyond the grave there's every chance he'll agree that this specific musical poet has been able to add to the power of the script by providing more lovely light to make the dark moments seem darker.

The budget of the National can seem over generously spent on frills at times and in this production the on-stage rain and the fireworks could have been cut without detracting from the performance. But for the most part the relatively simple set, yet complex staging was a very effective backdrop to the drama without upstaging it.

Mother Courage and her Children' isn't a dinner date play, but in this instance it's a very thought and discussion provoking experience, expertly presented, with a few personal flourishes, by all involved. This may even be one of the most memorable nights of your year.

Goes well with a heavy red, with a top up in the interval and one more after the show (it starts at 7:30 and finishes about 10:45.). Definitely invest 3.00 in the program.
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Why? Because theatre helps us work out the world, as well as keeping us entertained.
When: In rep until Dec. 8th
Where: The National Theatre
Cost: From 10
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