Michael Gow’s new translation of Mother Courage and her Children is an amiable one and Eamon Flack’s production for Belvoir is courageous, but Brecht’s political theatre (unsurprisingly) just doesn’t have enough heart to move its audience.
There’s singing and dancing and cursing and laughing and crying but audiences are left with a gaping hole in their heart where a care factor for the characters should be. Motor-mouth Mother Courage and her three children scuttle through war, battling against cruelty, stupidity and, eventually, the nihilistic futility of life. War kills its soldiers, civilians, enemies, and even those on the sidelines; no one’s safe. Everyone’s heading for destruction. A dark, ominous cloud hangs over Courage’s flaming red lolly cart from the get go and it never lets up. Sound depressing? It is.
Brecht, a flaming Marxist, wrote political plays that made direct commentary on his pre- and post- World War I and II surroundings. The result is Mother Courage and Her Children, which preaches that war is bad and peace is bad because people are bad, therefore life is – you guessed it – bad. We still live in a war-ravaged world. It may not be on our shores but a trip across the Pacific can vouch for Brect’s philosophy of human nature’s self-destruction. There’s insight there, to be sure, but Brecht’s hard-hitting style of theatre is an acquired taste.
More frustrating than these depressing, cynical slaps to the face dealt by Brecht – and well-resounded by Belvoir’s production – is that we then have to endure his infamous ‘estrangement effect’. As the Brechtian policy goes, emotion is avoided so that audiences pay greater attention to the words. As a result, we get potentially heart-wrenching scenes – like when Mother Courage stands over her third and final dead child – and we know Nevin has the acting chops to honour that pain, but Flack pulls her back and instead we get a disjointed beat change that leaves Nevin’s Courage with no emotional exchange.
It’s a peculiar and disturbing sight: we want to feel, we want to care, but we just don’t. As an effect it’s well-executed by Flack and company, but the challenge with Brecht is that his work is so off-putting for audiences, it’s very easy for us to get bored because there’s nothing on stage to emotionally invest in. A flaw in audiences? Perhaps. But, it makes for unlikable theatre all the same.
Nonetheless, this production is blessed with a wise director, a skilled cast and a bright creative team. Robert Cousins’ brash set design of yellows and red among dirt and grime, Alice Babidge’s mangy costume design that oozes the poverty and lacking of substance in these characters, and Benjamin Cisterne’s bright lighting design that over-compensates for the dark times that befall the players are all effective and clever.
Flack has delivered a production true to Brechtian theatre with a twist in setting that isn’t off-putting or crass like past Australianised Belvoir productions. Where Aussie slang sits dreadfully with a manic Cat (on a Hot Tin Roof), a post-apocalyptic deserted Australia works, especially with Gow’s clever, nimble translation. Robyn Nevin’s Courage delivers her consistent ballsy, sensical performance with panache, and Emele Ugavule’s mute Kattrin stands out as the most engaging performance.
But, still, there’s little enjoyment to be had. Those who love Brecht and enjoy fierce but emotionally removed political debate about the futility of war and life will enjoy this fresh-faced production by Belvoir. Others may walk out a little more glum than when they walked in.