It’s a horrible week in the news, between civilian planes being shot down, civilians being killed in a Middle East war, and a little girl being hit by a car in a neighbourhood I drive through. As a citizen, as a political being, as a parent, everything confronting me screams that life is painful and futile, that it’s a terrible time to bring children into the world, a time to hide under the covers and say no to anything daring or risky that might break your heart yet again. Of all Shakespeare’s plays the most apt might be King Lear, that Everest that challenges actors if not audiences, even if we can take comfort in its poetry, in the solace of knowing it’s a classic.
I can’t help speaking of Mother Courage and Lear in the same breath, a pair of mythic parental figures, two colossal roles to daunt any actor. Seasons are built years in advance based on complex commitments to the company, so it might be a fluke that these two shows come along in the same year. I suppose while I’m at it I should admit that Man of la Mancha represents another relevant study in an aging personality, although one that doesn’t interest me (because –not meaning any offense –I can’t think of Wasserman and Leigh as peers of Brecht & Shakespeare).
Why would Lear pop into my head at the same time as Mother Courage? First and foremost it’s no magic, just me staring at the calendar, trying to decide what to see.
There they were side by side.
And then I was jarred by the memory, of seeing Seana McKenna as Cordelia in the 1980s. Oh my I don’t think I’ve ever cried so hard at a Shakespeare play, sitting there hopelessly heartbroken when she’s torn away. I saw Lewis Gordon’s gruffly human Lear.
It struck me, though, that Lear and Anna Fierling are an interesting pair, a study in contrasts:
- Lear begins with all the power, although that’s stripped away
- Anna is at the bottom of the power hierarchy
- Betrayals & misfortune push Lear to madness. The portrayal of that madness is maybe the greatest challenge for the mature actor, across many generations of famous actors
- Anna’s adventures push her to a point where she might go mad: if she had such a luxury. She conceals her feelings much of the time. Anna is a more recent creation, one that has far fewer famous exponents, so perhaps too we can be surprised by a great portrayal such as McKenna’s.
- Lear is the archetypal father, while Anna is the archetypal mother. Is the difference perhaps that fatherhood has been swathed in tradition & respectability –making Lear’s fall so precipitous—whereas motherhood is still a matter of contention? And is a mother more than a biological function?
The Brecht is also directed by one of the great women of Stratford, namely Martha Henry. Does that mean McKenna + Henry = a feminist reading? I certainly would embrace that: if I knew what it meant. But I’m not saying you’ll like this version of motherhood. Brecht’s mother is not romantic, not subject to the political correct expressions of loyalty to her children: although we see her stoic suffering, unable to let her loyalties show. But she’s a survivor, unlike Lear. His pride is a luxury she can’t afford. Perhaps the chief difference –excuse me for being obvious—and it’s apt for a feminist reading, is that whereas Lear is a man who loses his power, Mother Courage is a woman, which means she never has much to begin with.
I am intrigued because I am mostly wondering about Brecht, in the anti-Marxist decades following the collapse of the Soviet empire. With the end of the USSR, Marx’s reputation was diminished by implication. I couldn’t help feeling that the ideologically tainted phrases in this play –and others from Brecht—can’t get a fair reading, because we’re in a strange place culturally, unable to even see Brecht’s didactic / activist side. We have poor people starving on our streets now, and we’ve inured ourselves to such atrocities, so the suffering in Brecht doesn’t sting as it once did. Maybe I’m imagining things, but I couldn’t help but feel echoes of the cynical laughter I heard when I saw Assassins recently, a willingness to treat anything pointed as social satire. The gravitas Brecht used to connote –especially in this play—seems to be harder to find, when the prevailing tonality of our culture is to embrace ironic laughs. I’m seeing a resemblance between Mother Courage and Heller’s Catch-22 that I never saw before, possibly because the play isn’t usually permitted to be so funny. War is just a backdrop for both tales, while a more materialist exercise (especially for Milo Minderbinder) is played out in the various theatres of war. Yes there are dark places in the plot –as there are in Heller’s novel—but also places to laugh too.
Excuse me the ridiculously long preamble, but I have long been fascinated by Brecht, both from the political side and from the dramaturgical side. Henry’s Brecht is very unpretentious, and not weighted down by the awe one sometimes encounters in the presence of one of the great names of theatre. Working with composer Keith Thomas, music director Laura Burton & the various performers jumping into the songs, this is a very intelligible telling of the story. I think it works very well.
It’s ironic that some of these ideas –“parenthood”, “war” and “politics”—are sometimes so reified as to lose any direct contact with reality. I’d also add the word “Brechtian” to the list of big abstractions that sometimes mess up a production of a play by Brecht. Henry’s Brecht, however, and McKenna’s Anna sidestep that trap. They’re so simple & direct that they could be a textbook on how to do Brecht without fear.
There are several other meaty performances, and lots of delightful moments in Mother Courage although it’s all dwarfed by McKenna’s work. Patricia Collins & Stephen Russell turn up in relatively tiny parts, but make the most of them. Geraint Wyn Davies is a dense mixture of strengths & frailties every bit as substantial as McKenna’s own blend.
Mother Courage and Her Children continues at the Tom Patterson theatre until September 21st .