Bertolt Brecht’s sweeping epic about the pity and futility of war has been given many different settings over the years. But can the Queensland Theatre Company’s transposition of the play to embattled Aboriginal people in a bleak outback setting work as effectively, when there is no actual war going on?
At first I was worried that the adaptation wouldn’t work, and the reactions of the first night audience confirmed my fears. Some of them seemed to see it as another depiction of the black-verses-white struggle in this country, while others, looking beyond this over-simple scenario, found Brecht’s visionary style of epic theatre, didactic rather than realistic, no longer shocking but, 80 years on, a tad old-fashioned and in-your-face.
But in the end it succeeded magnificently, and if the plot is difficult to follow, when there is no real enemy but many internal divisions within each side, it’s better to sit back and let the whole thing sweep over you like an incoming tsunami, rather than trying an intellectual analysis on the way through. And if the moral values of the play are troubling, with Mother Courage in one sense nothing but a low-grade war profiteer, think of it as a story of survival against all the odds, of a woman who is only undefeated because she has gone on trying.
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Ursula Yovich’s Mother Courage is an unforgettable figure, like so many women of the outback, both black and white — tough, resilient, loud and never admitting the pain, a true heroine who forever picks up the pieces and goes on. She’s not likeable, but that’s not the point — like the Queen, she keeps calm and carries on. Yovich’s is a spunky performance, but it doesn’t dominate the production — Wesley Enoch makes sure of that, because it’s a real ensemble piece, with characters larger than life taking over the stage in their turn with crude fun, and the sheer love of living brightening even the grimmest scenes.
Some of the characters verge on caricature, but in Brecht this doesn’t matter, and the comic relief is always welcome. There were some beauties here, like the inimitable Roxanne McDonald as the over-blown tart in her red high heels; Dave Dow playing multiple roles, but best as an Idi Amin figure of fun, if your mind can stretch that far; and David Page as the rogue preacher-man. And if George Bostock over-does just a little (a lot?) the doddering old colonel besotted with Yvette the tart, all’s fair in love and war in this context.
The play’s title, however, is Mother Courage and her Children, and only if we can look at Courage’s behaviour in that light can we make sense of her. She loses all three of them in dreadful circumstances, but from the beginning she sees her duty as protecting them. One son, Eilif (Luke Carroll), runs away to join the battle against her will and of course is killed; the second son Swiss Cheese (Eliah Watego) is executed for stealing the pay box; and the mute daughter Kattrin (Chenoa Deemal, in a deeply affecting performance) is shot as she tries to warn the town about an impending siege by banging a cricket bat against a corrugated iron wall, the only way she can communicate.
But even after the loss of all her children Mother Courage picks up her cart (or banged-up ute in this production) and keeps on going, living and partly living. (So many resonances of T S Eliot in this play.) She has changed, and even after she has lost her children, her main reason for living, she progresses from being the Great Mother to the Great Survivor, heroic in an even more universal sense. And that’s why the play still matters, in any adaptation, because it’s about survival, not necessarily of the fittest, but of the toughest.
John Rodger’s original music for this production is worthy of the greatness of the play, and Christina Smith’s set is absolutely breathtaking. Instead of a hand-cart, Courage has an ancient ute, minus engine but pulled like a plough from the front by her sons, or any other man she can rope in, and finally by her alone. It travels endlessly around the stage, an image of the circles of her life, probably meaningless, but depicting the whole futile human journey.
Mother Courage and her Children remains a masterpiece, and here makes sense yet again, if we see it as a metaphor for life as well as an anti-war play seen through the eyes of the little people, the forgotten victims. And if you find it hard to make meaning of the sometimes confusing plot, just listen to the simple words of the songs, especially the finale:
“The world will end and time will cease; and while we live we buy and sell; and in our graves we shall find peace, unless the war goes on in hell.”
The details: Mother Courage And Her Children is at the Playhouse, QPAC until June 16. Tickets on the venue website.