Mother Courage and Her Children
MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling, on tour
TAKING on Bertolt Brecht’s epic play about one woman’s ruthless survival during the 30 Years’ War is not something you want to do lightly. As with much of the radical German playwright’s work, it is a long, dialectical drama, built out of episodic scenes that resist an audience’s desire for sentimentality and happy endings, even as it provides them with songs and moments of black comedy. Politically and theatrically, it is a big beast to tackle.
Above all, in the character of Mother Courage, the play demands a performance of tireless energy and quick-wittedness. This pathologically driven woman not only carries her cart through the battlefields of Europe, she carries the whole merciless play. Rarely off the stage, she is an unstoppable life-force, at once admirable and despicable.
Sadly, on the strength of this showing, Birds of Paradise theatre company is not up to the job. Director Morvern Gregor has assembled a strong company of actors, but appears to have left them to their own devices. It is partly that their mastery of the lines, while adequate, is not good enough to create any sense of fluency; and partly that, as they take on multiple roles, they fall back on accents and characterisations that range from weak to unconvincing.
Gregor shows no feel for Brecht’s rhythms and contrasting styles, no instinct for his key turning points and too little sense of why she wanted to stage the play in the first place. As a result, good actors are left flailing as if we have caught them in the middle of rehearsals instead of several days into the run.
In the title role, a strikingly dishevelled Alison Peebles brings more than average compassion to a brutalised character. She is a creature governed entirely by economics, a businesswoman who thrives on the privations of war and values her own financial survival higher than the survival of her three children. Peebles reveals the emotional cost of this one-woman brand of free-market capitalism – the famous scene in which she reacts to the death of her son is full of silent anguish – but not enough of the charismatic swagger of a perennial saleswoman living on her wits.
Around her, the acting is uneven: the same actors blow hot and cold depending on how comfortable they are with each part. The play does, however, gather a momentum of its own as, one by one, the cruel consequences of war hit home, not least on Ashley Smith as the sad, silent daughter Kattrin. But this is a production that has lost confidence in itself and it trundles shapelessly to its conclusion with little conviction.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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