Any idea that “boring old Brecht”, as he is usually labelled these days by ignorant and condescending critics, will moulder in his grave while theatre disowns him is triumphantly shot to pieces in this thrilling production by Deborah Warner of one his greatest plays.
The opening was delayed by several days, and some previews cancelled, or half-cancelled, while Stephen Kennedy took over the role of the Chaplain and the production team struggled to pull together a highly complicated technical show.
But it was worth the wait, and Mother Courage, translated by Tony Kushner, is an ideal addition to the Travelex £10 tickets scheme: it shows how war is conducted by those on the fringes of the action, picking up the pieces and scraping a living: it has a tremendous set of new songs by the American chart-topper Duke Special; and it rocks.
Fiona Shaw is a mercurial, frighteningly atavistic Mother Courage, no sign of a headscarf, pulling a huge canvas and steel caravan of a cart from city to battlefield with a Virgin Mary statue and three children who all ultimately perish. Nothing daunted, she continues on her way.
Shaw does not play the gnarled old tragic heroine of the Helene Weigel or Joan Littlewood variety, but a feisty, company cheerleader who is too obsessed with survival to pause and lament. Forced to identify one dead son, she wryly denies he is hers. When her mute daughter Kattrin (Sophie Stone) is brutally executed while warning a sleeping town of the next invasion, she more or less kicks away her corpse.
The performance is shot through with a vivid cynicism and a take-it-or-leave-it stagecraft that seems a great contemporary way of doing Brecht: an approach enhanced in rock concert lighting blasts designed by Jean Kalman, and a set by Tom Pye that is an aggregation of props, musical instruments, and the supporting cast of dross and flotsam.
These last include Charlotte Randle’s stridently affecting and voracious prostitute, Kennedy’s fine Chaplain, Martin Marquez’s sly, adventurous cook and Roger Sloman’s vicious lieutenant in the great eleventh scene that pulls the reality of war into tragic focus.
And there’s the bonus of the cracked, weary old voice of Gore Vidal - a friend of Fiona Shaw - reading Brecht’s scene headings and, on the first night, taking the stage to rise from his wheelchair and remind us, as if we needed reminding, that the war goes on…