The Art of Alienation By pushing us away, Mother Courage draws us in by Stuart Munro @StuartMunroTO
This review contains spoilers.
Written in 1939 (but not published until 1950 after several revisions), Bertolt Brecht’s seminal play, Mother Courage and Her Children, is considered by many to be the greatest anti-war play of all time, and possibly the greatest play of the 20th century. At its core, like so many of Brecht’s other works, is the idea of Verfremdungseffect, or “alientation.” Realism is eschewed, and the audience is constantly reminded that what they are seeing is, in fact, a play. The goal is to distance the audience from the characters in an effort to create a more rational, rather than emotional, response to the proceedings. Whether the Stratford Festival’s new production succeeds in this will be up to the individual watching. For my part, I was overwhelmed and appropriately unsettled. Mother Courage is, I imagine, a play I’ll be thinking about for some time.
At the heart of the fractured story is the eponymous Mother, Anna Fierling (Seana McKenna); and her three children: Eilif (E. B. Smith), Swiss Cheese (Antoine Yared), and Kattrin (Carmen Grant). Over the course of 12 years of the Thirty Years’ War, Anna makes her living operating a canteen and selling supplies to soldiers, thus securing the futures of her children. But that security depends on the continuation of the war, and eventually all three of Mother Courage’s children are lost to it, highlighting the different ways that war can affect us all.
Seana McKenna is in fine form as the titular Mother. Her commanding entrance atop her mobile canteen garnered a round of applause on opening night, and she easily held our attention through the rest of the evening. Whether reuniting with a long-lost love, or haggling with a business partner, Ms. McKenna was always a picture of control and grace – in particular, her act with a single blanket while mourning over one of her children was stunning and heart-wrenching. As the two men in Mother Courage’s life, Geraint Wyn Davies’s Cook and Ben Carlson’s Chaplain both gave winning performances, and as in last year’s Mary Stuart, watching these two men argue with one another is an absolute delight. For me, however, the unexpected star of the show was Carmen Grant’s mute Kattrin. Without speaking a single word all evening, Ms. Grant is able to convey a whole world of emotions and passions. My heart leapt and broke for her, whether she was coveting a pair of red boots, or banging a drum to save a town.
The work of the entire ensemble is solid, and the various musical interludes, central to Brecht’s concept of Verfremdungseffect, are performed with a charming, ragtag feel to them. This thrown together vibe extended to John Pennoyer’s set and costume design, which looked as though all the elements had come from several disparate times and locales, but still feeling completely harmonious. As per the style’s demands, Itai Erdal’s lighting generally saw the stage bathed in warm light, save for the scene transitions when it was flooded with a harsh white. All of these elements have come together under director Martha Henry’s watchful eye. From the decision prior to the show’s beginning to have the actors – and specifically not their characters – come greet the audience, through the to use of 50 or so banners identifying years, scenes and events, Henry has embraced the Verfremdungseffect, all while keeping the pacing smooth and balanced.
The marvel of this play is that its message can be easily translated to our own time. At its heart, Mother Courage is about a woman who profits from a war in order to protect those around her, and when the war takes everyone away from her, the play stops cold – she has no reason to continue. Brecht was attempting to counter the rise of fascism in his own time, but in the here and now this work can speak not only to our involvement in foreign affairs, but our irresponsible use of our planet’s finite resources. Exactly what kind of world are we leaving behind for those dear to us? Will their story also abruptly end because of our shortsightedness? As its name might imply, the Verfremdungseffect might serve to alienate some audience members; I myself am still not sure what to make of it. But from the jubilant opening to the highly unsettling finale, this Mother Courage has certainly captured my attention.