Often acclaimed as being the most successful of Brecht’s plays in a literary and academic sense, productions of Mother Courage have had more than their fair share of box office disasters. The current production at the Olivier will almost certainly constitute one of the triumphs, although possibly not an unqualified one.
Set in Northern Europe during the Thirty Years war and originally intended to be a warning of the approach of the Second World War, Jonathan Kent’s production has an appropriate timeless and placeless quality. (“It is about war, not The War”, explains Diana Rigg, who plays Mother Courage.)
Critics once bemoaned the suppression of the main character’s full emotional potential in her ultimate failing to learn the lesson of the futility of war.
Brecht maintained that was the full character’s full potential – war teaches nothing, only suffering. He was concerned with opening the audience’s eyes, not the characters’.
Diana Rigg’s humorous and sardonic Mother both succeeds and falls short. She is hard and crafty, never falling into the trap of courting either sympathy or admiration. The decision for her not to age throughout, while not bothering me unduly, did seem a missed opportunity to underline the tragedy of her ultimate non-understanding of the lessons of her life.
But this Mother Courage - and indeed this production – seeks above all to entertain; which was one of Brecht’s objectives, too. Unfortunately, this is not the most entertaining of plays. Powerful and gloomy, it is also straggling and episodic and hard to maintain.
Brecht’s original wish for Ethel Merman to play Mother seems to be echoed in an almost frantic desire to achieve lightheartedness. Unfortunately, this often means a somewhat overblown style of staging which loses sight of the original raw savagery at the heart of Brecht’s writing.