Sunday, 25 October 2009

Turned on to Brecht


So sorry - that was the sound my mind made last night as Fiona Shaw blew it away with the sheer force of her performance.

So Bertolt Brecht - what do people think of him? I know what I thought before last night - heavy going, hard to get to grips with in a modern era. Boring. Why then, you would be entitled to ask, did I want to go and see 'Mother Courage and her Children'? Quite simply because it was Fiona Shaw in the title role, and Deborah Warner directing her (who has also directed her in 'Medea' (which I tragically missed) and the film of 'The Last September', which I adore.). I could put up with anything with that combination.

From the moment I sat down in my seat, however - which had members of the cast roaming around, and stage hands doing various things with ropes and other stuff - I knew I was in for a treat. Then it started. A few minutes into the first scene and Fiona Shaw rises from the depths of the stage, on top of her wagon, accompanied by a band. Duke Special to be precise. Actually - type Fiona Shaw into Youtube right now, and the first five entries or so are videos of her jamming with said band after the show in the foyer of the National. The band are fantastic, and there is something weirdly right about wanting to get up and dance around as Fiona Shaw flings herself across the stage.

Anyway - back to Mother Courage. I never knew Brecht could be funny, but he is, and in an oddly resonant way for the world today. Yes, he's writing about a war in Germany in the mid 1600s, but he could just as easily be writing for the war that's going on now. This production hits you full in the face with the brutality of war, there are explosions, and bursts of fire, and Mother Courage's wagon grows and shrinks as her business succeeds and fails (at one point there is a satellite dish strapped to it).

Fiona Shaw is hardly ever off stage. Even if she's not speaking, she's always doing something - plucking a chicken and making a right mess, being one of the most memorable pieces of business. The supporting cast are fantastic - Harry Melling plays her youngest son Swiss Cheese, and if the name rings a bell, it will be because you have seen him play Dudley Dursley. Not an obvious choice, one might think, but somebody get him more parts fast, because the guy is astonishingly good. Forget the golden Potter trio, Harry Melling might be the one to watch!

The thing about the play is that it is so blatantly opportunistic. Mother Courage changes sides with alarming ease (and loses a child in the process) but I never blamed her for it. That is what war is like, and if you're trying to make a living from an army, you're always going to end up with the winning side. Does Mother Courage win? the play ends abruptly. With all her children gone, and left to trail after a battered company, with her wagon at it's most broken and only herself to pull it, you'd be inclined to think she doesn't.

The whole experience is amazing. You're thrown into this messy world and never allowed a respite. If Fiona Shaw doesn't (and she's only off stage for about fifteen minutes out of a three hour production) the audience doesn't either. But however gruelling the content is, this production makes it


Bloomsbury Bell said...

I went to see Mother Courage and absolutely loved it. It was humming with energy and I was so entranced I didn't notice the length of the play at all. Fiona Shaw is a fantastic actress and has the entire audience in the palm of her hand. Duke Special and his band were great and really worked in the production. A great night! It was so thought provoking that the experience stayed with me for days as I was thinking about it.

oxford-reader said...

I wholeheartedly agree - I've been thinking about it all day. I keep remembering parts of the set and the way everyone interacted. I didn't realise that the actress who plays Katrin is actually deaf. She was fantastic, especially her final scene.

I can't commend this play highly enough - think it might be the best play I've seen this year!