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.

17 Responses to “Mother Courage and Her Children”

  1. Matt Boothman


    Full disclosure: apparently what I’ve done here is an unintentional “guerrilla review”. Due to technical difficulties, press night has been pushed back until Friday 25th September, so as far as the National are concerned, when I saw the play (on Wednesday 16th, the original press night) it was still unfit for review.

    (In the past the National have been reluctant to give press comps to London Theatre Blog, so I’ve got into the habit of buying a ticket for press night instead, which is why I didn’t know until afterwards that press night had moved. I wasn’t a critic, I was a punter with a notepad.)

  2. John Sargent


    I like full disclosure. Perhaps the NT would be gracious enough to invite you back for a comparative viewing on the ‘real’ press night?

    This sort of industry ‘gaffe’ tends to underline the utter masquerade that is a press night. I’ve felt it time and again working in theatre. The company, the crew, the whole venue is bent over double to welcome the kings and queens of the paper columns, to produce that one night of ecstasy that if in tune will somehow cause a golden glow.

    The rest of the run is then just the mundane matter of putting your shoulder to the wheel. Who are we performing for? When will the critics ever sit in on the process instead of judging the product?

    I just hope the NT takes note of your due diligence.

  3. Matt Boothman


    I seem to remember hearing/reading that the single press night is a peculiarly British phenomenon, and that on Broadway the press will visit not in a flock but in a trickle over the first, say, week of the run. Our system (and I’m speaking broadly here; not all UK theatres operate this way) is a bit like a scientist or statistician basing a conclusion on a single datum; or to put it in more theatrical terms, our press ends up reviewing individual performances, not productions. If something goes wrong on press night, every reviewer sees it, whereas if you read five reviews all written on different nights, it becomes clear which screw-ups are one-off anomalies and which are problems endemic to the production.

    Not that very many people read five reviews of the same production anyway, I suppose.

  4. Mel


    We saw “Courage” on Sept 17th,( my birthday treat) and we were blown away. I fully intend to go a second time. I think Brecht would been equally thrilled!
    Who cares what the press thinks. It’s either theatre that grabs you or it doesn’t. One doesn’t wait for press comment before deciding!

  5. jo c


    we saw this on 12 September and were so disappointed that we left in the interval – which is something i have very rarely done. it’s sloppy and unfocused, the music is pretty banal and it the production feels like a complacent version of the play. Shaw is energetic but never seems to have real emotional authenticity – i certainly did not feel that she was hungry and operating in a war zone. brecht did want his actors to be believable, in spite of all the distancing he also wanted to create.

  6. sandown


    The main reason why the technicians and stagehands are visible onstage in this production is because they are needed to ensure that it does not collapse into an even bigger shambles than it is already. Nothing to do with “Brechtian alienation”, but merely survival.

  7. Phisk


    Having seen the play tonight, a day after the press night (providing that they haven’t put it back again), I can report that it still felt like an early preview. Shaw seemed to be losing her voice and forgetting lines and the singing painfully missed the tone. Overall, possibly not quite as bad as as the production that came to Richmond Theatre a couple of years ago (although sadly not as good as the better parts of that either), but horribly disappointing compared to the excellent production of the Chalk Circle that toured to the National last year.

  8. Julien Lewis


    may i help from the distance… the national had big time problems but wanted to hold the dates… i think, one should stress the content of the play, the relations to afghanistan and so on – their decision to bring the play had been surely political – they stressed the importance, now, not later – but i didn´t saw the production

    i saw a production years ago with stage hands on the stage, it was rather charming, everybody saw their time problems (incl. to fund higher production costs)

  9. Rev Stan


    I saw it on the 17th and thoroughly enjoyed it. Really liked the fact that the ‘inner workings’ were on display and didn’t find them distracting but part of the drama. One of my friends noticed some fluffed lines but I didn’t.
    I try never to read reviews, whether by a ‘professional’ or on a blog until after I’ve seen a play and had a chance to enjoy it, or not as the case maybe, for myself, untainted by someone else’s view.
    Love to read people’s opinions afterwards though, to see if they match my own ;0)

    • Kate Willis


      We went to see it on the 24th September and thoroughly enjoyed the performance. I loved Fiona Shaw’s portrayal of Mother Courage and some of the other cast members were excellent in their roles (particularly liked the Chaplain and Katlin). The music took a little time to get going, but I liked the fact that an established ‘band’ took on the writing of the music and Duke Special’s voice was a treat for the ears. Different to the usual theatrical singers for sure, but a welcome change. Re seeing the backstage goings-on – perhaps a little overstaged, and the scene setting signs were definitely displayed a little haphazardly, but I don’t feel that they took away anything from the performance.

  10. terence d.o'sullivan


    I saw this production on the 26th: God alone knows what it must have been like on the aborted Press Review night a week earlier.
    A messy production, going nowhere and good actors clearly not knowing what was expected from them by the less than talented Director.
    Quite how I managed to last the first Act (2 hours!!) I do not know – innate theatre behavoural syndrome, I suppose: I did not trouble my seat after the interval.
    Thankfully, it was a Travelex affair – I would have been seriously pissed off if I had paid more tan £10.

  11. FM Lunnon


    In I think the 80s I saw a production of Mother Courage at the RSC with I think Judi Dench in the title role. Then too they had hideous technical difficulties with the cart and the opening was postponed, lots of apologies to punters etc. It wound up being so good I saw it 3 times. Let’s hope the same happens with this production.

  12. Matt Boothman


    Just read Benedict Nightingale’s review for The Times, which says the production “culminat[es] in a fireball rising from the wings”. There was no such fireball on the 16th, when I saw it – can anyone who’s seen it more recently than me describe what Nightingale’s referring to?

    • Rebecca


      It’s funny, I remember the fireball, but not when it was. It certainly wasn’t at the very end. I saw the play last night and thought it fabulous. Passionate, heated, desperate. The fireball was to the right of the stage (if you’re in the audience) and was hot and large enough to practically singe our eyebrows (we were in the Level 2 stalls). They certainly made us feel as if we were part of the action! 🙂

  13. Ian


    Saw this on 17th Oct. Some technical difficulties would have added to what was otherwise one of the most dire, pointless things I have seen on a stage. And those songs…..ugh! Left at the interval to preserve something of the evening.

  14. Stephen


    Saw it on the 25th Oct.

    Great production. I can’t understand why people fuss about seeing stagehands on the set. So what? One could validly say that it underlines the chaos of the 30 years war!

    Loved the music too. Some people seem to forget just how much Brecht wove music into his plays – not just Weill’s – and not ‘easy listening’ either.

    The fireball was most impessive – I felt the heat in the Circle! It certainly wasn’t at the end of the play either.

  15. The Beastie


    It sounds an amazing production, and a lot of people here don't seem to understand that it was performed exactly how Brecht would have wanted, the use of verfrumdungseffekt. Lighting rigs, stage hands and other theatre goings on is all part of the exact practitioner philosophy that Brecht created. And people seem to think performers and theatre crew are super human when it comes to things like this, technical difficulties are part and parcel of it all!

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