Fiona Shaw in Mother Courage and Her Children (National Theatre 20/10/09) 20 October 2009

In a nutshell - I enjoyed it but didn't love it; I appreciated it but didn't admire it. I enjoyed the pagentry of the production, the music (once I settled into it), some of the performances and the general overall effect. I appreciated what Director Deborah Warner (Powerbook and Happy Days at the National, Julius Caesar at the Barbican) was getting at and it worked on an intellectual level, to a degree, but not enough to admire it. All in all a pretty mixed bag.

As with all of Deborah Warner's productions of recent memory, the production aesthetics kept me entertained. This was designed by her current regular designer Tom Pye with costumes by Ruth Myers who has mostly worked in film, big major film. I think this collision of ideas was the start of why I felt everything was almost right but just didn't hit the mark.

When you entered the theatre, the Olivier's mostly bare stage, was heavily populated by stage hands, seemingly working on getting the stage ready. I immediately thought that the production was going into 'play within a play' mode, but thankfully it never did. Banners were coming in, flying up, flying down - props moved in and out - all seemingly without any real need. It all seemed staged to appear as if they were preparing but the result was a hollow exercise.These stage hands were pretty much present onstage or just lurking off in the shadows for the entire production, they were even used as dancers (well, movers) in the distant background in one scene, and judging by some of their faces, reluctantly. Other times they were obviously there for health and safety reasons. One came in towards the end with a script and was mumbling something to one of the characters which didn't really have an effect one way or another. I coldn't figure out what this choice was trying to say.

As it settled into the first moments, one of the actors, dressed as a soldier who had been joking and clowning around during the setting the stage section, made use of a stand up mic set off to one side by performing an impromptu sound check, hitting some rhyming hip hop beats and testing a floor pedal next to the mic setting off sounds of an explosion. Throughout the production he would occasionally sit off to the side, watching, and then step up to the mic to provide sound effects or set up the scene we were about to see. This in itself was strange as I'm pretty sure the audience could figure it out through the action and dialogue that followed. This was also odd as there were projections starting each scene with hand written introductions which were read by Gore Vidal in a pre-recorded audio.

The settings throughout were hugely theatrical, with very few 'structures' as such, save Mother Courage's cart and a few tents which were flown in. There were huge beige canvases hung throughout each scene written with each scenes location. Very stark and minimal. On the other hand there were costumes which were pretty unremarkable and erased any clue as when this play was set. They were all true to each character but didn't approach or acknowledge the theatricality of the setting. Having said that, it was fun watching it all happen and I was never bored during the 3 hour running time (+ a 20 minute interval).

Continuing with another first, this was my first Mother Courage and my first Brecht. Many of us know the story - a woman and her children are able to use a war as their only income and salvation, bringing into question the validity of the acts and war. To be honest, there isn't that much more to it. I did know, however, that there was music and song interspersed. In this production, new music was written and performed (on stage) by Duke Special, whose blond dredlocked hair, flared trousers and slightly platformed shoes, added a cabaret feel. He is very good, and I really liked his voice. It took me about three songs in before I understood the role the music played - to comment on and to expand on particular moments.

Although there was an overall story - one by one each child leaves her until she is left on her own, while her own womanly needs are split between two male characters - the play seemed to be a series of moments. Each moment had a message or theme, which is fine but the performaces didn't really handle this aspect well. Fiona Shaw as Mother Courage was as expected very good but didn't knock my socks off. It's a difficult role. On one hand Mother Courage continually belittles her children to their faces and behind their backs, yet she mourns thier loss and absences. It's a difficult balance. You would have to find something about the character which is likeable so that you could empathise with her as she speaks of the love she has for the children she just called stupid. It didn't happen for me. The rest of the performances were just up and down, here and there while the older actors fared best (special mention to Charlotte Randal as Yvette the prostitute. She pitched her performace just right and provided the only genuine laughs and pathos of the evening). On the other hand many of the younger actors grated on my nerves. They relied on tricks and ticks taught in acting school. They could have been deliberate choices of style, to give everything a more theatrical feel, but I found it, especially with one actress who was only on in the final scenes whose hammy overating was a standout for the wrong reasons, unbearable at times.

As with all live theatre, much of the overall experience is decided by audience reactions. On the night I went I had the feeling that it was supposed to be funnier than it ended up being. Many times what should have been a big laugh kind of fell flat. Certainly this has to have an affect on the actors. There could be two choices for them in this situation, really go for it and play it for laughs or retreat and underplay it. I'm afraid, with the exceptions stated above, underplaying was the course for the evening.

The various elements individually had interesting elements - the set, the acting, the music, the direction, but as a cohesive whole it never made the statement I think they were going for. One of my heroes Tony Kushner (Angels in America and Caroline or Change) wrote the adaptation which premiered in New York at a Public Theatre production. I can't tell you how it stacked up next to previous adaptations or it's original German, but from what I heard I thought it was great writing, giving the production a balance between the traditional and the contemporary which the other elemnts failed to do. The vision of the director was the star of the evening with everyone and everything else going along for the ride.

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