Fiona Shaw’s extravagant entrance as Mother Courage – atop her cart, sunglasses in place, microphone in hand, like Leona Lewis at the closing ceremony of the last Olympics – is the type of opening one might expect for a big budget, glossy concert, not a National Theatre production of arguably Brecht’s greatest play.
Strutting around the cavernous Olivier theatre, mingling with the on-stage band, Mother Courage is a star of Jagger-esque proportions. Yet she doesn’t have the vast fortune to go with the fame.
Instead, she makes her living following war, peddling goods from the back of her cart to soldiers. She, like the recruiter and sergeant of the opening scene, profits from the bloodshed and hardship, but unlike the army officers she does not want her three children anywhere near active participation in the fighting. She knows the mortal dangers of war, yet she fears its end, for with its demise perishes her livelihood.
That is the argument at the centre of Brecht’s most famous creation, and in this production particularly, it is not as easy as saying ‘war is bad’. While the piece shows the terrible, horrifying effects of war – the death, the bloodshed, the most repulsive of human behaviour – it also depicts a woman addicted to the conflict, who cannot survive without her profiteering ways and who makes the most unnatural of decisions as a result.
Shaw’s entrance is not symptomatic of the entire show – her rock star trappings giving way to a draining, punishing performance – though almost every scene includes a song written and performed by alternative/folk singer/songwriter Duke Special. His often haunting, ethereal tunes break through any fluidity in the action, as do the spoken introductions to each new scene and on-stage set and costume changes.
Though the stage work and songs force a dislocation from the action, and the themes and topics are intended to force questioning in the minds of the audience, Tony Kushner’s translation is rife with banter and delivered with enough pace to keep the scenes moving forward, like the war, towards an ending that can only ever be tragically depressing.