There are two starting transformations on view in Jonathan Kent’s Royal National Theatre production of “Mother Courage and Her Children,” and for the moment anyway, it’s impossibleto separate them out. The first involves Brecht’s 1939 epic in a new version from David Hare whose urgency refashions a potentially tiresome dramatist-as-idealogue for our own warring age. The second finds Diana Rigg reinventing herself as an actress so that not only does her cartpulling Courage avoid cliche, but the performance itself reveals a theatrical courage not seen from Rigg before. Throw in the work of a remarkable composer, Jonathan Dove, and the National continues what is by anyone’s reckoning an extraordinary year — Brecht hasn’t been this bracing for some time.
Kent and Hare teamed up on Brecht early last year in a ponderous Almeida Theater “The Life of Galileo” that in no way prepared one for their achievement here. That play’s discussion of faith seemed to tally with Hare’s own in a work like “Racing Demon,” and so, too, does the idea of a heroine defined by — and desperate for — war complement Hare’s 1993 Olivier epic, “The Absence of War.” “If you fight in a war, you have some sense of personal worth, “muses a Labour Party employee early in “Absence.” Mother Courage takes this tenet to its grotesque extreme: Only in war is Anna Fierling at peace.
“No war, no order,” Courage announces at the start, emerging atop her cart from the rear of Paul Bond’s set like some grimly comic parody of victory leading the people Is Courage victorious? Yes, in the sense that she survives a conflict that has slaughtered all three of her children by the time her ravaged cart comes to a halt 12 years into the Thirty Years’ War. But not at all, of course, in that war continues to lay waste to her long after she has ceased to profit from it. Changing countries, towns and even Catholic and Protestant sides with abandon, Courage cannot outwit a war that grinds on only to reciprocate her love of its adrenalin with the gradual extinction of her spirit.
That brio is what has always redeemed Courage, who might otherwise be a foolish eynic — “to live, just give,” she sings, “in doubt, sellout” — addicted to mercenary dealings. But Brecht understood show business as well as dogma — the war is referred to as “a bit of a flop,” as if it were a Broadway musical — and it’s the fevered gallantry to Courage’s dogged persistence that sustains our interest, while it elevates her to an archetypal status of Survivor. By the end, she has “nothing to sell and no one has any money to buy, ” and yet she trudges on, like a Beckett heroine who can’t stop pacing or rocking until death brings down the curtain.
Here’s version animates a text once talked of for Ethel Merman (!), and it’s often bitterly funny in ways that go beyond contemporary retorts. Beekett is further invoked in the bleakness summed up in the Cook’s (Geoffrey Hutchings) “the world is dying out,” a summation anticipated in a dazzlingly written and acted scene between Rigg and David Bradley’s sardonic Chaplain. “War is like love; it finds a way,” says the Chaplain, a sort of philosopher of combat. Courage’s response: a harsh cackle, followed by lighting the Cook’s pipe.
The adaptation always meshes with Dove’s original score, which honors its obvious forebear, Kurt Weill, even as — in Hutchings’ deftly performed “Song of Solomon” — it folds a hint of klezmer into the Cook’s vaudeville discourse on wisdom and humanity. (The first-rate music director is Mark W. Dorrell, repeating his assignment on the Oliver’s concurrent “A Little Night Music.”)
Technically, the production deserves mention for making the quietest use yet of the theater’s notoriously difficult drum revolve, which designer Bond uses in conjunction with a back wall of sliding panels to keep a potentially static play on the march.
The evening’s primary mover, inevitably, is Rigg, leading a company among whom only Lesley Sharp’s surprisingly blunk Kattrin — usually a foolproof part — fails to score (So luxuriant is the casting that the venerable Michael Gough appears for a few lines only playing the Very Old Colonel; in “Galileo,” he was the Old Cardinal: Is this a trend?) Reteaming with director Kent (their Almeida Theater “Medea” brought her a 1994 Tony), Rigg makes a flinty, begrimed corruptor at some remove from her too cool star turn as Euripides’ infanticidal witch.
Speaking in a hard north of England accent, the actress is a riveting embodiment of the life force gone haywire, and it’s one of her many canny achievements that she seems to shrink in size during the play in direct proportion to the ever greater shadows thrown by Peter Mumford’s expert lighting. Her last moment is shocking in the truest sense — it looks lived, not acted. Those fierce eyes glazed over, her gait noticeably slowed, a drained Courage struggles on — a near-lobotomized shell of the emotionally and sexually voracious con artist we saw at the start. Yes, the world may be dying out, taking common sense and children with it, but Courage’s tragedy is that she lives still: She’s a walking corpse played by an actress who for the first time in my stage experience of her has found the daring not to play herself.