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Review Round-up: Shaw Shows Courage at NT

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Deborah Warner’s long-awaited modern dress production of Mother Courage and Her Children opened at the National’s Oliver Theatre last week (25 September 2009, previews from 9 September), starring Fiona Shaw in the title role.

Currently booking until 6 December, Bertolt Brecht’s anti-war epic runs to over three hours in Tony Kushner’s new translation, which is accompanied by live music from Duke Special, as well as recorded scene announcements from Gore Vidal, making his London stage debut.

The original press night was delayed by nine days and when critics finally saw the play last night, they emerged massively divided in opinion. Whatsonstage.com's Michael Coveney found Warner’s production “thrilling’, though several other reviewers suggested she had rather overegged the rock’n’roll aesthetic. And while Shaw was commended by some commentators, The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer called it “one of the embarrassing spectacles I’ve ever seen in a theatre”.

Nevertheless, Fiona Mountford of the Evening Standard and Michael Billington of the Guardian thought Shaw captured Mother Courage’s inherent contradictions. And there was praise all round for the supporting cast, in particular Stephen Kennedy as the chaplain, as well as for Duke Special - albeit faint from the pen of Charles Spencer, who called his “weary, bleary music ... the best thing in the show”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (five stars) - “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 ... 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 ... 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.”
  • Michael Billington in The Guardian (four stars) - “The good thing about Deborah Warner's revival is that it frees Brecht's play from pious reverence and releases its dynamic energy. Even if Warner's production occasionally throws the baby out with the bathwater, it presents the play as a piece of living theatre ... Fiona Shaw captures all the contradictions of Brecht's protagonist: she is courageous and cowardly, philosophical and pragmatic. She shows that the character is aware of the cost of her business-first outlook: in the great scene where Courage is forced to deny knowledge of her dead son, Shaw's expressive features are engaged in a battle between feigned ignorance and tremulous emotion. At times, as when seen riding atop her wagon in a battle helmet, Shaw overdoes the jauntiness, but she never lets us forget that Courage is constantly torn between her maternal protectiveness and her bargaining instinct.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) - “Nothing is more climactic than the arrival of Fiona Shaw’s Mother Courage, that hyena of the battlefields ... at times she overemphasises Courage’s swaggering energy and resilience, and underplays what’s hard, grim, voracious and weather beaten in a character who loses three children to her belief that she can profit with impunity from the Thirty Years War. She can be raucous but also oddly fey and frolicsome, goosing a passing soldier or wiggling with glee at the prospect of gain. Shaw is a great actress, but she’s more fire and air than earth - and it shows ...Yet the supporting performers, especially Stephen Kennedy as the glum chaplain who becomes Courage’s potboy, are strong and Tony Kushner’s adaptation combines with Warner’s staging to catch war’s unpredictability, fever, ferocity - and perverse magnetism.”
  • Charles Spencer in The Telegraph (one star) - “Director Deborah Warner and actress Fiona Shaw ... have turned the play into a rock-and-roll circus. Shaw comes on to the Olivier Theatre stage in sunglasses and boho-chic threads like a cross between Mick Jagger and Madonna, strutting round the stage in feisty rock-chick style and singing abysmally. It is one of the most embarrassing spectacles I have ever seen in a theatre, a desperate ploy to make Brecht, the discredited old Marxist, seem relevant and modern ... Warner is also determined to be so hip it hurts, opening her production with white noise and the sounds of modern warfare, and wheeling on a folk-punk band led by someone called Duke Special, a white man with the silliest dreadlocks ... I have no doubt that some will claim to find all this compelling and describe the production as a telling commentary on Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, the show struck me as merely idiotic, full of sound and gimmickry, and signifying almost nothing.”
  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (three stars) - “Doom-mongers will be disappointed, as this is a competent, confident, if ultimately underwhelming reading of one of the trickiest masterpieces of 20th-century theatre ... Shaw gives a lucid, earthy account of Brecht’s deliberate bundle of contradictions, extracting maximum value from Tony Kushner’s wry, witty translation but falling short of the role’s towering greatness. If she conveys the sense of gritty compromise needed to survive and even flourish in a world of bellicose men, she fails adequately to pinpoint the emotions of a woman who makes a living but loses her offspring ... The play makes for epic theatre in every sense of the term. Amidst its bagginess are moments of undisputed brilliance but Warner fails to differentiate her scenes sufficiently. The result is a cumulative, enervating blurring of focus that even memorable work from Charlotte Randle as the raddled prostitute Yvette and Sophie Stone as Courage’s dumb daughter Kattrin fails to prevent.”
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