Sketch comedy can trace its origins back to music halls and vaudeville where brief song, dance and yuks acts made their way across all manner of stages only to find its ideal medium when television was invented. Full-length plots were not required, allowing the bits and pieces of a show singular lives of their own either live (e.g., Saturday Night Live) or pre-packaged weekly satire shows (such as This Hour Has 22 Minutes).
Yet about the same time as TV began becoming a reality then finding its way into the much smaller stages of family living rooms, Bertolt Brecht was at the top of his form in America.
How very appropriate, then, to have Mother Courage and Her Children take its rightful place in the Stratford Festival’s Mad, Mad World as celebrated by this week’s seven openings (cross-reference below).
At the time of the première (1941), it must have seemed mad to many theatregoers that a play could be constructed from a series of vignettes coupled with songs and set on the periphery of armed conflict. Surely there would be more drama (and seat sales) in the actual trenches rather than traipsing along with a horseless (humans taking the honours—so at one with Waiting for Godot) chuck wagon, making its way through much of the 30 Years’ War.
Abandoning the textbook dramatic arc in favour of largely self-contained scenes and a smattering of ditties could never bring down the house?!
Worse still, having two women carry the principal roles must have been viewed in many quarters as utter lunacy.
Now, eight decades or so later, Martha Henry’s ever-inventive production fires on nearly every cylinder.
Rather than be subject to madness, thoughtful patrons will become mad that Brecht’s savvy understanding of state/church-sanctioned murder shows no signs of being “cancelled” anytime soon.
David Edgar’s F-bomb-rich translation is delivered with gusto and panache by the ensemble. Having many of the troupe mingle in the aisles with their admiring patrons before the curtain rises and after intermission immediately establishes a sense of “we’re all in this together” community. Employing the actors to also provide most of the instrumental music (successful to varying degrees—professional Laura Burton anchoring the acting instrumentalists with keyboards, including accordion) looks better than it sometimes sounds.
It’s hard to imagine anyone plumbing more insight, range of emotion (if erring ever so slightly on the perpetually cheerful side) and sheer stamina from the title role than Seana McKenna. Perhaps the most riveting example is McKenna’s icy cold, hidden-heart Judas moment: a truly terrible deceit for any parent to endure. Her children also have suitable champions in Antoine Yared as semi-witless Swiss Cheese and E.B. Smith as hero-killer Eilif (whose success at despatching the weak and vulnerable to the other side—like all good criminals in uniform or not—comes dutifully full circle).
Carmen Grant gives a gut-wrenching performance as Kattrin, the mute (an earlier causality of soldier/protector abuse), nearing old maid status daughter of Mother Courage. Curiously at one with Joan of Arc, she stunningly demonstrates more courage than the rest of the cast put together only to give deadly verisimilitude to the previously heard “The Song of the Great Souls of this Earth.”
As the vicar with hope for a better life and a fairly reliable conscience, Ben Carlson plays the conflicted Chaplain with just the right mix of dogmatic compassion and those-were-the-days bravura—the moment when he realizes his future with Mother Courage will likely be scuttled by a ne’er-do-well cook (Geraint Wyn Davies in excellent form as the perpetual lecher) is unforgettable.
And a special shout out to Deidre Gillard-Rowlings playing Yvette Pottier. The whore with an agenda (sleep with moneyed clientele) does a superb job of providing comic relief to some of the truly miserable acts that are part and parcel of any war no matter whose side you are on—especially a war of “faith” where those lucky enough to be killed on the battlefield will be fast tracked to heaven. Brecht’s wily character most certainly feels like a heartfelt homage to Musette from La Bohème.
The eerie calm after the peace-declaiming church bells fall as silent as Kattrin is soon, inevitably, replaced by yet another wanton round of death and destruction. And like countless millions around the globe today, Mother Courage feels a sense of relief that her livelihood will thrive again. For if peace did break out permanently she would be as destitute financially as war mongers are cowardly, sending untold numbers to early graves under the veil and moral protection of an omnipotent, loving deity. JWR