Mother Courage and Her Children
Bertolt Brecht, translated by Michael Hoffman
English Touring Theatre
Arts Theatre, Cambridge, and touring
Stephen Unwin is an unusual director. 'Clear' is the word that seems to crop up most often when people write about his productions, (which seem to be nearly exclusively for his touring company, ETT) and if you've seen him direct, you'll recognise his calling cards. Period dress usually, next-to-no set, often a hanging picture of some sort, and precise, clearly-blocked, hardly cut and solidly performed productions of big classical plays.
This though can have a nasty side-effect, as showcased by his recent productions of King Lear and Twelfth Night: they did exactly what they said on the tin, but, to be honest, had no moments of real theatrical excitement. You admire them for their virtues, but Unwin's productions are almost entirely without the moments that make the hairs on the back of the neck stand up; you're reminded of the quality of the writing, rather than the joy of the theatre.
Yet though his Shakespeare lacks the motive and misses the cue for passion, Unwin's surgical clarity makes him a director superbly suited to take on Brecht, and this - his first major Brechtian production, of Mother Courage and her Children - is easily the best production I have seen of his to date.
Mother Courage travels through war-torn Europe, bartering and trading, one by one losing her children as her cart rolls on, and, played out on a clean-lined modern stage of white cyc and grey-brown planks, Unwin's two-interval, three-hour production cuts through the theoretical garbage that so often stifles this undoubtedly great dramatist in production to reveal that the beating heart of Brecht's parable for peace is as resonant today as ever.
Unwin directs a tight, sharp, pacy production which delivers the story as well as one could expect; he also cannily inserts 'Brechtian' techniques where they serve the bigger picture without ever letting them upset the plot's momentum. So Michael Cronin, an ETT regular, speaks the captions that begin each scene (no placards), scene changes are done in half light, and, after losing her first son, Mother Courage silently screams as the lights come down for the first interval.
For the performances, Jodie McNee is excellent as mute Kattrin, and Patrick Drury hits every note of despairing hypocrisy as the snivelling chaplain, though there are a few complaints: Tom Georgeson's convincing performance as the Cook is marred by a not-so-convincing Geordie accent, which is the most prominent offender in a parade of lazily clichéd, regional-accented military men, though not as bad as some of Cronin's, who, only in RP for his captions, seems to get an electric shock from every eighth (shouted) word. Yet the key weapon in the artillery is the Mother Courage, and this production's success is due in no small part to a blazing central performance from Diana Quick.
If Quick's performance was for the National or the RSC, the 'Sold Out' signs would be up, and theatre history would be being made. This is a major interpretation of a major role, and Quick's diminutive, blunt Cockney Courage wrestles Brecht's writing to the ground and shakes out of it a magnetic performance, which can provoke our disdain, our laughter or our empathy with a tiny flicker of Quick's lightning-fast dark eyes. She barters, swears, smokes, cries, and unforgettably, flops double like a ragdoll, exhausted, before continuing to pull the cart alone. Nothing seems forced, nothing overplayed and nothing underdone: every emotion is played up to the hilt, and always without seeming actory: every contradiction in this fascinating part is grist to the mill of Quick's deeply felt and hugely detailed performance, alone easily worth the price of admission.
Fantastic to see this courageous bit of programming at the Arts, and especially nice to see young people in a theatre (whose attention was largely held) where the stalls too often seems a sea of white. A four-star production of a difficult play, marked out by a five-star Mother Courage from Diana Quick. Recommended.
Reviewer: Robert William