No apparent expense has been spared to create the overblown disarray of Deborah Warner’s National Theater production of “Mother Courage and Her Children,” Brecht’s scathing commentary on the costs of war to civilization. Press night was delayed by more than a week because of technical difficulties; given the elaborate layering of staging effects, from projections to pyrotechnics to star Fiona Shaw being lifted hydraulically from below stage atop Courage’s famous cart, it’s easy to see why. The production’s decadent hypertheatricality, however, undercuts the play’s irony and its politics, which, despite its 17th-century setting, remain as relevant as ever.
The staging falls prey to a frequent pitfall of productions of this writer’s work: It attempts to be Brechtian by employing techniques the playwright proposed more than a half-century ago as a means to defamiliarize theater. Thus, technicians are visible throughout the action; half-curtains only partially mask business taking place behind them; the house lights are sometimes brought up; and scene breaks are enacted visibly, making it a familiar sight to see Shaw doffing and putting on costume pieces.
The problem, however, is that all these techniques have long since become part of Western theatrical convention and no longer seem remarkable. Such a literal, dated approach misinterprets Brecht’s stated desire — that directors respond to the culture around them and discover new ways to destabilize auds’ relationship to the stage.
Here, the approach is more repetition and layering than interrogation. In another dated Brechtian technique, scenes are announced by a live, visible actor (Gary Sefton), but also sometimes accompanied by recorded voiceover by (of all people) Gore Vidal, and by printed banners, sometimes augmented by Lysander Ashton and Mark Grimmer’s projections conveying the same information. Serious overkill.
The lone design element that simultaneously captures auds’ attention and keeps them on their toes is Jean Kalman’s remarkable lighting, which sometimes bathes characters in sympathetic yellow-toned pools of light but at others catches them out in disconcerting spotlights.
It’s through the character of Courage, who sells goods to troops during the Thirty Years’ War, that Brecht conveys the heart of the play’s message. She is paradoxically both sustained and nearly destroyed by war: Her pragmatism keeps her alive, but also directly or indirectly costs her the lives of her three grown children.
Shaw attacks the production with enormous intensity: swaggering, stomping, cracking coarse jokes like an old-time comedian. This may be an attempt at one of the most difficult of Brecht’s dictums — that actors somehow perform the idea behind a character while keeping an emotional distance from it — but Shaw’s performance is so exaggerated that the moments when she does become moved seem too self-consciously bravura. Perfs across the board are ratcheted up to caricature level, and a tendency toward shouting appears to have led several in the company to strain their voices.
Singer/songwriter Duke Special’s distinctive dreadlocked, boho-chic look appears to have influenced the overall aesthetic, and he and his band appear frequently onstage to accompany the actors in new musicalizations of Brecht’s lyrics, sometimes performing songs on their own. The nouveau-music-hall, romantic quality of Special’s music, however, makes the songs feel more like interludes than commentary, and repeated references to his real-world identity comes across as self-promotion, which ironically undercuts the play’s anti-capitalist message.
Ruth Myers’ costuming — contempo combat fatigues for the military characters, an appropriately hideous half-denim half-floral skirt for Courage — suggests the present day, as does the colloquialism of Tony Kushner’s fine translation (first heard in the 2006 Shakespeare in the Park production with Meryl Streep). And surely, as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to top headlines, Brecht’s questions about the material, spiritual and cultural price of war remain pressing. By falling back on dated techniques and resorting to spectacle, however, the production ends up destabilizing the text’s political relevance.