Went to see Mother Courage and her Children at the National last night, which is not – as I'd hoped – a nursery rhyme with a happy ending. Instead, Fiona Shaw tries to run a racketeering business through a never-ending war and keep her three children alive.
It's a bombastic, lively version of Berthold Brecht's play, full of his trademark interventions to remind you that you're watching a play. The stage directions are read out, and a recording of Gore Vidal summarises scenes before you see them, so there's spoilers aplenty. Whopping great signs hang from the air pointing out the names of characters and what the set's meant to look like. Before each half the technicians held the stage, getting this ready and acting as if they were. I'm also not sure the house lights were down as much as usual, so you were aware of everyone else watching.
Despite all this clever estrangement stuff, I was pretty quickly caught up in the action. Shaw is enthralling and the rest of the cast do their best to keep up. It's a funny, rude and sweary play, defiant against the unyielding misery of war.
I think I might even have read it before, or at least studied the brilliant scene where Mother Courage must pretend not to recognise her dead son or be executed herself. It's a great bit of drama: compelling because there's no easy way out, no argument that will save things. It's telling that Courage, so full of fire most of the time, here has nothing to say.
The setting is the Thirty Years War in the first half of seventeenth century, but Brecht wrote it in response to the Nazi invasion of Poland. There are plenty of Irish accents in the cast of his version, and bits of army uniform from today's conflicts, to pepper the play with contemporary relevance. It's nicely judged: the struggle to survive and even profit from war, and its terrible cost, never feel like a we're being lectured.
Partly that's the way the thing bashes along, never pausing for breath. There's not even time to applaud the songs from Duke Special that punctuate the story. At 3 hours 10 minutes – with a 20 minute interval – it's still a long play, especially for a half-man, half-orang-utan who doesn't quite fit in the £10 seats.
Wondered if they'd noticed that too, and skipped over a couple of scenes later on just to get to the end. The Dr then told me that the first preview a couple of weeks back had not had a second half – as reported in the Guardian. A play where the director comes out and explains you're only getting part one? I think Brecht would have loved that.
(Incidentally, this is blog post #850.)