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Sunday, 8 June 2014

Review: Mother Courage and Her Children

Mother Courage and Her Children, by Bertolt Brecht
Translated by David Edgar
Directed by Martha Henry
Designed by John Pennoyer
EB Smith as Eilif, Seana McKenna as Mother Courage, Carmen Grant as Kattrin,
Antoine Yared as Swiss Cheese. Photo: David Hou.

The Story: Anna Fierling, known as Mother Courage, ekes out a living for herself and her three children by pulling a wagon canteen through the battlefields of Europe during the Thirty-Years War. She barters and sells provisions to soldiers of either side and offers fealty to none.

How does one describe a character like Mother Courage? The very text refers to her as "a hyena of the battlefield" and at least one translation calls her a "war profiteer". Brecht himself re-wrote the part after its initial opening drew audiences' admiration for the role - he intended her to be an anti-heroine, unlikeable, representative of the lowest common denominator in war-time. She is a truth-teller without wisdom, an unmaternal mother, a capitulator of the highest order. There is nothing inspirational about her.

Which makes Martha Henry's direction somewhat unBrechtian, but Seana McKenna's portrayal perfect. Ms. Henry's production is inspired in its spareness - the set is nothing more than a chopping block, the props mostly contained in the wagon, the costumes a mish-mash of whatever would be cobbled together during a long, drawn-out war. Ms. Henry uses Brect's techniques of epic theatre to great effect, keeping the audience in full awareness they are watching a piece of fiction, but the performances draw us in nevertheless.

Ms McKenna is all business as Mother Courage - quite apt for the character. No needless gesturing, no quavers in her voice betraying any inner emotion, even as she loses her children to war, their own 'virtues' and her own calculated actions. There are certainly sparks emitting between her character and Geraint Wyn Davies' Cook - an aging, charismatic Don Juan - but other than that and two wrenchingly difficult scenes involving her children, Ms. McKenna's Mother Courage is all Brecht would have her to be. With perhaps one exception...

The chemistry between Ms. McKenna and Carmen Grant who plays the mute, sensitive Kattrin, might be too palpable for Brecht, but is wonderful to witness as a member of the audience. Kattrin is a character written to contrast Mother Courage - maternal but an old(er) maid, expressive though she cannot speak, the character who is most apt to be called the heroine as in the end she refuses to capitulate and pays with her life. Ms. Grant and Ms McKenna resemble each other enough to sell the relationship of daughter-mother, but it goes deeper than that - the characters have their own silent language that even Kattrin's brother's do not understand.  Of all the memorable characters and horrific moments in this play, it is Ms. Grant's sweet and stalwart Kattrin who will tug at the heartstrings, but it is the mother-daughter relationship with which most will identify.

For the rest, EB Smith gives the character of Eilif a twitchy energy that breathes more life into him than the text suggests while Antoine Yared's Swiss Cheese (yes, that's the character's name) is the polar opposite, all inner-monologue without much thought to the reality of events. Ben Carlson's careful study of the Chaplain shows this character to be a thoughtful man, but lost all the same, and Deidre Gillard-Rowling and Jamie Mac provide a hearty breath of fresh salt-air as the lusty Yvette Pottier and foul-mouthed Young Soldier (only Newfoundlanders have truly mastered the art of the F-bomb. That's a compliment.*)

One bone to pick with this production is the music, composed by Keith Thomas. It was somewhat enjoyable, and as plentiful as the text demands but not very powerful. (Perhaps this was a fault of the new translation, provided by David Edgar, but given his tremendously moving adaptation of Pentecost a few years ago, this is doubtful). So the songs of "Fraternization", "The Great Capitulation" are poignant and somewhat funny, but not particularly moving or memorable, and the scene of Mother Courage and Kattrin pulling their wagon through the winter as a nearby family sings of prosperity is almost invisible. Where some scores are designed to surreptitiously manipulate the emotions, Mr. Thomas' music did anything but - but then, that would suit Brecht to a T.

Mother Courage and Her Children continues until September 21 at the Tom Patterson Theatre.

Seana McKenna as Mother Courage (background); Carmen Grant as Kattrin (centre)
with members of the company. Photo: David Hou.

*I can say that. I'm from there.

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