Mother Courage and Her Children at the Southwark Playhouse review ***

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Mother Courage and Her Children

Southwark Playhouse, 7th November 2017

Hmmm. I am torn. This was a mixed bag and no mistake.

The good stuff first. Well it is Brecht so there will always be big issues to chew on, although here the anti-war appeal that lies at the heart of the play felt curiously understated. The production does have a ramshackle design from Barney George which I was quite taken by and which seemed to capture the ravages of a long drawn out war on a society. The transverse staging and the constraining of the larger Southwark Playhouse space had some advantages, particularly when it came to observing the best of the cast. Mind you this did put paid to the Brechtian distancing effect. Hannah Chissick’s direction had some nice touches though this seemed to lack an overall coherent vision. I like the folksy song arrangements by Duke Special which are drawn from the 2009 NT production. Tony Kushner’s translation from 2006 is strong on characterisation but seems somehow to play down the “epic” nature of the action, though the production was partly responsible.

Best of all was the swaggering performance of Josie Lawrence as Mother Courage. Whilst there was a part of me that would have liked a more hard-bitten Courage to ram home the war as commercial opportunity message, her more sympathetic spirit paid dividends in the scenes with her “children”, the Chaplain and the Cook. David Shelley and Ben Fox in these latter two roles also turned in strong performances, as did Laura Checkley’s brassy Yvette and, especially Phoebe Vigor’s Kattrin. I was less convinced though by the rest of the cast whose tone seemed uncertain, notably the sons, Swiss Cheese played by Julian Moore-Cook and Eilif played by Jake Philips Head. Don’t get me wrong, the boxes were largely ticked, it just seemed to me that motivation and understanding was sometimes lacking.

This lack of conviction was ultimately why the production was only a qualified success for me. There were some powerful scenes notably when Courage disowns the corpse of Swiss Cheese, when Courage turns down the Cook’s offer to escape to Utrecht and especially at the end when Kattrin is beating the drum to warn the townspeople, but many of the other scenes have less definition, and those that do work rely too much on the sympathy generated by the performers, which risks melodrama, and which Brecht specifically wanted to eschew. This should be far more threatening and dislocating to convey the true horror and to reveal the economic and religious imperatives that underpin war, whether in the Early Modern Age or now, in the throes of Late Capitalism.

An avowedly non-specific staging also risks, as it does here, the distancing effect offered through Brecht’s setting in the Thirty Years War of the early C17 between Catholic and Protestant. We are supposed to be immersed in Brecht’s epic story but also to think long and hard about what he is telling us, and I am not sure we were fully afforded that opportunity. We are allowed to understand why Courage does what she does, because she has to to survive, but we are not supposed to like her.

The transverse staging was complicated by some early scenes which took place partially in a mezzanine which was, literally, a pain in the neck for half the audience. Music, sound and lighting worked with the staging but the lack of space constrained the pattern of movement, (to avoid problematic sightlines),  which had the perverse effect of slowing the momentum at times.

My conclusion. A brave attempt which is worth seeing for Josie Lawrence’s fine, if ultimately flawed, performance and for some of the ingenuity of the creatives in trying to make this work in this space. And because it is Mother Courage and Brecht. But there have been, and there will be, more coherent and biting productions which do more to reveal the layers of Brecht’s art, passion and instruction.

 

Angels in America at the National Theatre review *****

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Angels in America: Part One Millennium Approaches and Part Two Perestroika

National Theatre, 29th July 2017

That Tony Kushner is an ambitious playwright. This will comes as no surprise to you experienced theatre lovers but, having seen this and The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at the Hampstead Theatre last year, this has come as a revelation to this newbie.

Ostensibly Angels in America is a play about the impact of HIV/AIDS on a handful of characters beginning in mid 1980s New York and the denials that dominate their lives. Into this Mr Kushner weaves an examination of religion (specifically Mormonism and Judaism) and personal salvation, the rise of economic neo-liberalism and fall of communism, national, personal and sexual identity, the nature of responsibility and even the march of history itself – fin de siecle anyone?. The characters generally don’t do much in the way of small talk, yet all the exposition is punctured by genuinely funny humour. These people do not lack self awareness, that’s for sure.

Part One generally remains within the bounds of the naturalistic, Part Two goes into metaphysical overdrive as the curiously ineffectual angels (who themselves have been deserted by God) start to pile up. If I am honest it is all a bit nuts at times but the points that Mr Kushner wants to make more than justify the formal experimentation. And he does make a lot of points as I said. Sometimes repeatedly and with no let up in the erudition.

Now you might think the thick end of 8 hours of this, for those of us who opted for the one day experience, might turn into too much of a good thing. I have to say though that, with the exception of a few longueurs, you would be wrong. Mr Kushner’s writing creates, in me at least, a kind of heightened perception of the themes he is exploring, whilst still delivering a story, or stories more precisely, with forward momentum, and characters that you can love (or hate) despite, or perhaps because of, their intensity. As with all very. very clever people, Mr Kushner is maybe occasionally guilty of mislaying the “less is more” filter but this is a small price to pay to be dazzled on this scale. And whilst the direct impact of HIV/AIDS may have changed in public discourse in the last three decades or so, the questions the play poses directly and indirectly are still painfully relevant.

As for the production, well it is brilliant. Marianne Elliot’s direction is faultless. Meticulous precision has been applied to the combination of Ian McNeil’s set, lighting, sound, and yes, even the angels, which means the rhythm of the play is never impeded. And the cast. OMG. I don’t think I have ever seen as many high level performances as in this production. Andrew Garfield is astonishing as Prior Walter whose campness turns to courage. If anything Nathan Lane is even better as Roy Cohn, whose denial of his illness is as aggressive as his delusional politics. This two performances alone would be enough to justify the ticket price but then you have James McArdle chiming in with an impeccable portrayal of Louis Ironson, Prior’s lover who is riddled with guilt and hypocrisy. And then you have Russell Tovey as Mormon Joseph Pitt whose sexual denial has to crack, and, maybe most memorably for me, Denise Gough, who takes the part of Harper Pitt. Joseph’s pained wife and turns it into triumphant release. On and then you have Susan Brown, Amanda Lawrence and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, lighting up the stage as they cover most of the remaining parts. Collectively this is acting of the highest order.

So you can see I liked it. A lot. Like I said it does sprawl a bit, and the brain did need a few minutes of time out across the hours, but this is what theatre is all about. So if you are a theatre luvvie stick it on your bucket list. If you are a philistine run a mile.