×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Mother Courage and Her Children

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.

With:
Cast: Diana Rigg (Anna Fierling, Mother Courage), Lesley Sharp (Kattrin), Brett Fancy (Eilif), Bohdan Poraj (Swiss Cheese), Geoffrey Hutchings (The Cook), David Bradley (The Chaplain), Doon Mackichan (Yvette); Cyril Shaps, John Bluthal , Martin Freeman, James Buller, Sarah Parks, Anthony Renshaw, Patrick Baladi, Ken Christiansen, Paul Benzing, Michael Gough, Tony Selby, Donald Pickering, Gordon Langford-Rowe, Tamsin Dives, Angus Wright, Edward Clayton, Susan Jane Tanner, Phillipa Peak.

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.

Mother Courage and Her Children

Production: A Royal National Theatre presentation of a play in two acts by Bertolt Brecht , adapted by David Hare from a literal translation by Anthony Meech. Directed by Jonathan Kent. Sets and costumes, Paul Bond.

Crew: Lighting, Peter Mumford, Music, Jonathan Dove; music director, Mark W. Dorrell. Sound, Jonathan Suffolk. Opened, reviewed Nov. 14 at the National/Oliver. 1,125 seats; $: 22.50 ($ 36) top. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

With: Cast: Diana Rigg (Anna Fierling, Mother Courage), Lesley Sharp (Kattrin), Brett Fancy (Eilif), Bohdan Poraj (Swiss Cheese), Geoffrey Hutchings (The Cook), David Bradley (The Chaplain), Doon Mackichan (Yvette); Cyril Shaps, John Bluthal , Martin Freeman, James Buller, Sarah Parks, Anthony Renshaw, Patrick Baladi, Ken Christiansen, Paul Benzing, Michael Gough, Tony Selby, Donald Pickering, Gordon Langford-Rowe, Tamsin Dives, Angus Wright, Edward Clayton, Susan Jane Tanner, Phillipa Peak.

More Film

  • C'est La Vie TIFF

    French Films' Overseas Box Office Revenue Drops 51% in 2018

    After bouncing back in 2017, the overseas box office revenue of French movies plummeted by 51% to 237 million euros ($270 million) with 40 million admissions sold, a 52% year-on drop, in 2018. The provisional box office figures were unveiled by UniFrance during a reception hosted at France’s culture minister during which Eric Toledano and [...]

  • Isabela Moner Shameik Moore Kiernan Shipka

    Netflix Casts Starry Ensemble for Adaptation of John Green's 'Let It Snow'

    “Dora the Explorer’s” Isabela Moner, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s” Shameik Moore, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s” Kiernan Shipka, “Lady Bird’s” Odeya Rush, Jacob Batalon, Miles Robbins, Mitchell Hope, Liv Hewson, Anna Akana, and Joan Cusack are set to star in the Netflix pic “Let It Snow.” The film is based on the New York Times bestselling [...]

  • Brian Tyree Henry Playback Podcast If

    Listen: From 'Beale Street' to 'Spider-Verse,' Brian Tyree Henry Was Your 2018 MVP

    Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. Emmy- and Tony-nominated actor Brian Tyree Henry is coming off a sensational year. A second, acclaimed season of FX’s “Atlanta” sent him headlong into a fall movie season that saw featured roles in Yann [...]

  • (L to R) SAMUEL L. JACKSON,

    How a Costume Designer Brightened M. Night Shyamalan's 'Glass'

    Paco Delgado’s costumes are as varied as his films. Contrast the drama “The Danish Girl,” the futuristic fantasy “A Wrinkle in Time” and the period musical “Les Misérables.” Now he’s in comic-book territory with M. Night Shyamalan’s newest superhero/supervillain thriller, “Glass,” which Universal releases Jan. 17. The costume designer’s career began in Barcelona and London, [...]

  • The Lego Movie 2

    'Lego Movie 2' Heading for $55 Million Opening Weekend

    Warner Bros.’ “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” is heading for an opening weekend of as much as $55 million at the North American box office on Feb. 8-10, early tracking showed Thursday. Chris Pratt is returning to voice Master Builder Emmet Brickowski along with new character Rex Dangervest. The unfailingly optimistic Emmet has [...]

  • Kevin Hart Monopoly

    Kevin Hart in Talks to Star in Monopoly Movie

    Kevin Hart is in talks to star in Lionsgate and Hasbro’s Monopoly live-action movie, which he will also produce through his HartBeat Productions label. Tim Story is in final negotiations to direct the film and also produce through his Story Company banner. HartBeat’s John Cheng will also produce and oversee the pic with Carli Haney. Story Company [...]

  • Playtime Unveils Three New French Comedies

    Playtime Dives Into Different Waves of French Comedy (EXCLUSIVE)

    Playtime, the Paris-based co-production and sales company which will be presenting Francois Ozon’s anticipated “By the Grace of God” in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, has acquired three offbeat French comedies: Geraldine Nakache’s “I’ll Go Where You Go,” “The Bare Necessity” with Fanny Ardant, and Valerie Donzelli’s “Our Lady of Paris.” “Our Lady of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content