James Ryan Gobuty
The Stratford Festival is highly regarded as the bastion of the Shakespearean tradition in Canada. That’s why I was more than a little surprised the see Bertolt Brecht’s classic play Mother Courage and Her Children on the billing for the festival this year. Despite excellent performances by the actors and some lovely staging, Stratford’s production of Mother Courage misses the mark, perhaps necessarily so, by refusing to engage Brecht’s piece on its own terms and performing it (unfortunately but unsurprisingly) like a piece of Shakespeare.
Mother Courage and Her Children was written by Brecht as an anti-war play as World War II was ramping up. The play takes place during the Thirty Years’ War (an earlier European war that conspicuously also put Polish national identity into question), following the titular Mother Courage (Seana McKenna) and, her children – Eilif (E.B. Smith), Swiss Cheese (Antoine Yared), and Kattrin (Carmen Grant)—as they travel across Europe with their cart selling food and wares to soldiers on both sides of the war. As the play goes on, Mother Courage ends up losing each of her children to the dogs of war, largely because of her own reluctance to give up a profit to save them. Brecht’s play is supposed to show how war exists primarily for the sake of profiteers; this is a point that is largely lost in this production due to a seeming reluctance to embrace Brecht’s full vision for this play.
Brecht understood that the key to creating political and effective theatre does not rest on the script alone; it also needs a novel (and markedly un-Shakespearean) dramaturgy and acting style to facilitate the “instructive” nature of his plays. This Brechtian mode of play-making is often referred to as “Epic-Theatre” and is bolstered by what Brecht called a Verfremdungseffekt, or in English a “distancing” or “alienation” effect. Brecht believed that theatre needed to “alienate” the audience in certain ways to facilitate the critical “distance” needed to judge the play effectively: this means that the audience is not meant to be “drawn in” or “empathetic” towards the situation. Though the Stratford production does excellent work with Brechtian dramaturgy, particularly in breaking the fourth wall, and through the use of signs and placards to express the situation, it does so at the expense of an Epic-acting technique which is even more pivotal to a successful production.
Let’s begin with what worked. Director Martha Henry clearly was committed to creating a vibrant Brechtian aesthetic on stage. As the play was about to begin, the supporting cast filled the stage and wandered around, talking to each other and to the audience without embodying their characters. This is an “alienation” effect par excellence, wherein the audience is allowed to view the play as artifice rather than some other world. Of course, the titular family is not involved in this excellent prelude to the play, allowing the stage magic to envelop them too fully. Henry also made good use of the Brechtian convention of using signs to announce what will take place in the following scene. Henry opted to alternate the usage of the signs amongst characters expositing the introductions to the scenes in Brecht’s script; this helped keep the effect from becoming monotonous. The set design was excellent and John Pennoyer definitely deserves praise for it. In particular, Mother Courage’s cart was extremely well made, proving itself to be an incredibly versatile prop/set-piece that is masterfully used to delimit changes in space. Itai Erdal’s lighting design was also very well done, creating a distinct feeling of the passage of time from scene to scene.
I must tread lightly when commenting on the acting style because it would be wrong of me to claim that the performances in this production were less than excellent. Seana McKenna is a commanding presence on the stage, and perfectly embodies the hard, yet committed, Mother Courage. Geraint Wyn Davies also has a knock out performance as The Cook, and Carmen Grant’s rendition of Kattrin was probably the most notable performance in the whole piece. My contention is that despite the commitment to a Brechtian aesthetic, that aesthetic did not cross over into the acting. Brecht makes it quite clear that the “alienation” effect begins with the actor, who is supposed to develop a “distance” from the character while performing, thereby “alienating” the audience from relating or empathizing with that character: this is where the show falls by the way side. Rather than ascribe blame to any particular party, I would rather suggest that this is the inevitable reason why Brecht cannot work in Stratford. This isn’t a simple diatribe from a Brecht purist either; the sincerity and pathos which this production evoked – in a properly Shakespearean fashion – resulted in taking away much of the humour in the play. Though the modern translation by David Edgar got some laughs through some of its bawdy language, the actual rhythm and humor of the script was lost and some of Brecht’s most poignant ironies fell flat or were completely missed.
Despite hopes that it might have been otherwise, I was not at all surprised at how this show turned out. I will contend again that Brecht cannot work in a place like The Stratford Festival. Brecht developed his Epic Theatre mode to be exactly against the bulwark of the $100 a ticket crowd. Brecht’s was a theatre of the people, meant to undermine the snobbery and pretension that is often associated with the theatre. Of course what we’re left with is a hollowed out Brecht that the Stratford crowd can appropriate as one of their own without an iota of reflection on the purposes and political efficacy that theatre can provide. It was a fine production for Stratford, but a betrayal of Brecht, and one that I think should make us all question how much we give up when the theatre of the masses becomes an exclusive affair.
Mother Courage and Her Children is playing at the Tom Patterson Theatre as part of The Stratford Festival until September 21, 2014. Tickets can be purchased online at www.stratfordfestival.ca or by calling the box office 1-800-567-1600.
photo credit: David Hou