Julie Bainbridge reviews John McGrath’s National Theatre Wales radical adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children.
Whatever your attitude to Bertolt Brecht, there’s no doubt that it will be upended by this radical interpretation of his work by NTW Artistic Director John McGrath. With an all female cast, National Theatre Wales fires up it’s fifth season with a revised adaptation of Mother Courage and Her Children at Merthyr Labour Club. Brecht’s play explores the themes of motherhood, profiteering and survival during a period of war. It encourages audiences to eschew a sentimental interpretation of characters in favour of a reflection on the reality and horror of war. In Brecht’s world, virtue goes unrewarded and there are no heroes.
Brecht communicated this message by alienating audiences through devices which distanced them from the illusion of theatre; making them conscious of the construction of performance. But where this was once innovative, Brechtian techniques are now common practice in theatre, and it’s interesting to see how McGrath attempts a fresh approach.
We’re used to NTW’s mission to create theatre across Wales, so setting the play in Merthyr’s Labour Club is nothing unusual. The performance makes good use of the indoor and outdoor spaces, but trying to combine Brecht’s world with the Saturday night spirit of Merthyr seems incongruous. Yes, it’s part of the alienation technique, but there’s greater irony in performing a play about war profiteering in a town which grew out of producing iron for cannons and battleships in the eighteenth century. What does work is Ed Thomas’s script, rich in welsh idiom and reflective of the South Wales Valleys, especially when delivered by an all female, Welsh cast. It’s an innovative concept, and the nine actors work hard to perform all the roles and they do it well. Dafydd James’ karaoke-style song compositions also work well in the club setting, injecting both comedy and pathos into the performance yet also creating that verfremdungeffect of alienating the spectator from the spectacle. And there are other devices; television screens that flash war footage between episodes of breakfast television and Who Wants to be a Millionaire?; a daughter who looks older than her mother; an audience-participative disco and an emergency evacuation of the audience for the outdoor performance of the final scene.
Rhian Morgan’s performance as Mother Courage is spirited and feisty. She is well-supported by Sara McGaughey (cook), Ri Richards (chaplain) and Donna Edwards (Yvette). Together they deliver a story which is paradoxically both comedic and tragic. Brecht intended Courage to begin clear-eyed about how to survive the war and to become less articulate and less able to cope as the story plays out. In this interpretation all the key components are present and done well, but somehow, Brecht’s message is lost. The diminution of Mother Courage’s voice is swallowed by the clamour of the execution; by too much emphasis on creating that sense of alienation. The message is in the dialogue, and in this performance there’s too much to distract the audience. It’s not that Bertolt Brecht is hard to understand, just that sometimes, less is more powerful.
NTW at Merthyr Labour Club, Merthyr Tydfil
Rhian Morgan, Ri Richards, Donna Edwards, Sara McGaughey, Sharon Morgan, Gaynor Morgan Rees, Cathy Owen, Nicola Reynolds, Eiry Thomas.
Music composed by Dafydd James
Director: John E McGrath
Julie Bainbridge has written numerous theatre reviews for Wales Arts Review.
For more Wales Arts Review coverage of National Theatre Wales, including news, reviews, and interviews, click here.