Brecht's message still relevant, if didactic
By: Kevin Prokosh
This time there weren't five curtain calls greeting the triumphant
cast at the conclusion of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and her
Children at the Manitoba Theatre Centre.
Unlike the rapturous outpouring of approval that followed the antiwar
epic's legendary Canadian première at MTC in 1964, a revival's
opening night performance Thursday drew a respectful ovation from a
small audience thinned to half its size at intermission.
The night was all about survival and war: the Thirty Years War on
stage and an attrition war in the seats, as patrons struggled with a
three-hour running time that sometimes felt like a forced march.
Brecht can be didactic as he hectors on about how war is hell.
Those who stayed for the duration were treated to an impressive stage
spectacle, a powerful title performance and Brecht's compelling
portrait of our capacity to bear suffering and endure.
The MTC/National Arts Centre co-production, which opened in Ottawa
last month, debuted a new version by Peter Hinton, the NAC's artistic
director of English theatre. Without taking any major liberties, he
restores the colloquial power of Brecht's original script with modern
language like "frickin" and "as if," while tightening the focus on
the cosy connection between war and business.
The latter is the first word spoken by Anna Fierling, a.k.a. Mother
Courage, and the last. In between she hauls her wooden wagon of wares
and woes across the battlefields of Europe, vainly struggling to get
her children through the war alive.
This mother of all mothers is a fast-talking, hard-nosed
wheeler-dealer, a 17th-century blend of Groucho Marx and Winnipeg
sales icon Nick Hill. At one point she is told to "cut with the floor
show" but she never does.
Mother Courage follows the armies seeking the spoils of war but
watches her family spoiled. No matter whether you're tough and smart
(son No. 1 Eliff), lucky and guileless (Swiss Cheese) or innocent and
brave (Kattrin), no one is spared war's wrath.
Tanja Jacobs doesn't carry the same acting pedigree that Zoe Caldwell
conveyed to Winnipeg in 1964, but she meets all the demands -- apart
from her plainly average singing -- of a role that is often called
the female King Lear. In the brutal scene where Mother Courage
pretends not to recognize the dead body of her son, Jacobs' face
captures all at once a mother's anguish, pragmatism and resignation.
Brecht provides lots to think about, and Hinton's creative team
supplies plenty to catch the eye. Set and costume designer Teresa
Przbylski rolls out seven upright pianos on wheels for both musical
accompaniment and to represent everything from a parsonage to a
funeral cortege. Her military uniforms from different eras symbolize
the timelessness of war. John Munro's effective lighting adds
emotional depth to many beautifully conceived scenes.
Paul Dessau's original music is not particularly stirring, except for
a dynamite rendition of Surabaya Johnny, a bitter ode to unfaithful
love sung by Jani Lauzon, who plays the prostitute Yvette.
The most heartbreaking performance belongs to Waneta Storms as the
mute Kattrin. Her silent preening as a woman desired for the first
time after donning Yvette's red hat and shoes sticks in the mind. As
the army chaplain, Richard Donat delivers many of Brecht's best lines
about the inevitability of war, while Geordie Johnson appeals as the
Although his blunt lessons are not as shattering as they were when
Mother Courage debuted in 1941, Brecht has proved prescient with a
message that has, sadly, never become irrelevant.
Bertolt Brecht's antiwar epic returns to MTC burdened with history
and high expectations
By: Kevin Prokosh
The last time Winnipeg witnessed a professional production of Mother
Courage and her Children, the Manitoba Theatre Centre was at the
zenith of its fame under founding artistic director John Hirsch.
In late 1964, the country's first regional theatre presented the
Canadian première of Bertolt Brecht's antiwar epic with Broadway
headliner Zoe Caldwell backed by a constellation of Stratford
Festival stars, including Martha Henry, Douglas Rain and Frances Hyland.
The previous year, legendary Toronto Star critic Nathan Cohen had
come to town in the dead of winter to scout MTC for himself and left
dumbfounded, later writing in Canada's largest newspaper: "How is it
possible in such a strangling and chilling atmosphere for an
institution like the Manitoba Theatre Centre to appear, and sink
roots? More importantly, what is it about the MTC that has made it
succeed, when in more flourishing and outwardly responsive cities,
like Montreal and Toronto, efforts to create a professional local
theatre have foundered or are unable to extend their original base
and focus of appeal."
The much anticipated Mother Courage debut was front-page news in the
Free Press and drew critics from as far away as New York City. That
production climaxed with five curtain calls for Caldwell, who would
return to New York and win three Tony Awards. The reviews were
rapturous, with Free Press critic Christopher Dafoe hailing the
31-year-old Australian actress for providing "a Mother Courage to
remember and cherish." The Globe & Mail added, "In achieving the
scale of this remarkable stage work, it establishes the scale of the
Manitoba Theatre Centre."
The indomitable war profiteer Mother Courage returns to the MTC stage
tonight, dragging her famous canteen wagon loaded with theatrical
history. In the title role, Toronto actress Tanja Jacobs is well
aware of the burden.
"I know it was a big deal in Winnipeg and it hasn't been done since,"
she says over the telephone from Ottawa, where the MTC/National Arts
Centre co-production ran Jan. 12-30. "I hope it's going to be a big
deal this time, too."
Brecht wrote Mother Courage in a feverish five weeks in 1939 -- while
in exile in Scandinavia, as Germany was invading Poland -- as a
warning to his countrymen about the coming disaster. His heroine
trails the armies during the 30 Years War, selling her wares at a
profit but suffering great personal losses.
"It's a play about war," says Jacobs, the Belgium-born mother of one.
"It's the greatest indictment of war that I've read for the stage."
Experiencing Mother Courage in the theatre remains a rarity. The
first production wasn't until 1941 in Zurich, and the official
première not until 1949, with Brecht directing his wife Hélène Weigel
in a destroyed Berlin theatre. The New York City debut, starring Anne
Bancroft, waited until 1963 and it was not revived again until 2006
with Meryl Streep. It is just as uncommon in Canada.
Peter Hinton, the NAC artistic director, estimates there have been
only a handful of professional productions since Winnipeg in 1964.
Mother Courage was not done as part of BrechtFest 2002. The NAC
staged it in 1980 and Stratford in 1987.
"It's a small number," says Hinton. "You'd think that all these
regional theatres have done a Mother Courage but no."
That's because it represents a big undertaking for a theatre, beyond
the three-hour length and 40-member cast Brecht once demanded. Most
of all you need an actress who can take on the towering challenge of
one of the greatest stage roles for a woman.
Jacobs joins an elite group. Part of the cart she will be hauling
here is from the one Joan Orenstein pulled at the NAC 30 years ago.
"When you do a masterpiece like this, you can't help but be conscious
of all the other people who have done this play," says Jacobs, who
last appeared at MTC in The Innocent Eye Test in 2006. "We all have
tremendous respect for this piece and what it has witnessed."
In the four years since the script entered the public domain,
playwriting luminaries such as David Hare (The Blue Room) and Tony
Kushner (Angels in America), have tried their hand at adapting Mother
Courage. Brecht and his estate used to keep a tight rein on his
signature work. Only certain translations were acceptable, most of
which were British and American. Hinton spent three years attempting
to bring a Canadian sensibility to this version.
The timing was also right to explore the country's great ambivalence
to military conflict when Canadian soldiers were killing and being
killed in Afghanistan. The state of the world certainly justifies
another visit from Mother Courage.
"It's a real special thing," Hinton says. "Each generation should
have a Mother Courage."
Manitoba Theatre Centre
Opens tonight, to March 6
Tickets: $23-$65 at www.mtc.mb.ca