Thursday, 18 June 2015

Mother Courage and Her Children, Belvoir

Brecht can be a tricky trap for professional theatre companies. His plays abound in parable-like simplicity, but require creative theatricality to really fly. In the case of Mother Courage, his epic about war and capitalism, they also require an ability to tell a long story covering multiple years while feeling tied together (Brecht only vaguely gestures in his script towards when and where the characters are, and there's very little information as to who's fighting who and why, just that the war is continuing throughout and that it's obviously a religious war).

Eamon Flack's production doesn't quite connect the dots as it might. There's good stuff in there (in particular, many of the performances, and some nice imagery), but this isn't something like his "Glass Menagerie" or "Angels in America" where he's found the beating heart of the play and got it moving. Michael Gow's new translation certainly feels playable and speakable, and Stefan Gregory provides some good tunes to to with the songs, but too often this stops and starts when it should be pulling the audience along with it through humour, tragedy and compelling struggle.

Part of it may be that the comedy early on doesn't land, meaning that the tragedy later can't either. The central idea of this production (making Mother Courage's cart a lightbulbed food-truck) seems clever and modern, and there is a through-line of Courage as a practical small-businesswoman whose compromises are still not enough to save her and her children from the harm of war, but elsewhere things are very vague. Neither Tom Conroy as Swiss Cheese or Richard Pyros as Elif, her two sons, make much of an impact in their scenes, therefore we don't really fell their loss when they are compromised and killed (although Conroy's post-mortem appearance in a bouncy, enthusiastic "Song of the Great capitulation" is one of the most effective moments in the evening - a great moment of darkness creeping into entertainment, which should have been a feature of more of the evening). Nevin has all the ruggedness and deviousness that a good Mother Courage should have, but too often she's not met at her own level. Paula Arundell as Yvette is suitably sultry and sings a great "Fraternization" song, but her appearances are too intermittent to really hold the night together. Similarly Arky Michael's cynical and lusty Cook has a great energy but is used too infrequently to really work. Anthony Phelan's Priest doesn't quite land - there's a certain amount of self-righteous weaselry in the role that isn't quite captured, so his scenes tend to go  a tad flat. Emele Ugavule is passionate and engaged but her death scene suffers from staging problems that mean it never quite lands as it should either.

I have had strong hopes for Flack as incoming Artistic director of Belvoir, but this isn't the best model of his talents. For whatever reason, this doesn't feel like a fully-committed full throated production the way it should, and thus it falls flat when it should grab you by the scruff and demand attention.

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