The prospect of staging Brecht’s work on the Olivier Stage is similar to the prospect of flying an aeroplane backwards. Though in theory the vehicle is a tool designed to go where you tell it to, in practice there are certain manoeuvres it’s structurally unsuited to perform.
Brecht dictated that his plays be staged with no frills. But any director given the run of the Olivier can be forgiven for wanting to actually use the facilities on offer. It isn’t yielding to temptation, it’s making the most of a rare opportunity.
Like a glass-panelled clock, Deborah Warner’s Mother Courage and Her Children doesn’t just choose not to conceal its inner workings, it displays them, inviting the audience to marvel at the way the pieces fit together. During one musical number Courage (Fiona Shaw) drags an ASM, already quite visible at the edge of one wing, fully onto the stage, where she dances briefly with the announcer (who also dances little jigs in the scene changes), and during the interval the second act’s placards fly in and out, in and out, as if the winches are being tested.
Not trusting the audience to be satisfied with the real backstage goings-on of a National Theatre production, Warner treats us to a self-conscious, theatricalised version of them. What we see is more bustling and disorganised than backstage in any theatre I’ve worked in; a theatre workers’ self-portrait that magnifies every insignificant pimple.
Revealing the production’s nuts and bolts works as Brecht intended, removing the emotional smokescreen that prevents critical engagement with the play; but theatricalising and calling attention to the backstage business just replaces the smokescreen with blinkers, creating a parallel drama that competes with the more important one centre stage.