Meet Mother Courage – genius survivalist

PUBLISHED: 16:22 14 October 2009 | UPDATED: 17:24 16 August 2010

FINEST: Fiona Shaw. Photo: Anthony Luvera.

FINEST: Fiona Shaw. Photo: Anthony Luvera.

AS years of death and destruction continue to rage over territories won and lost how can Bertolt Brecht s brutally pertinent play, Mother

AS years of death and destruction continue to rage over territories won and lost how can Bertolt Brecht's brutally pertinent play, Mother Courage and her Children, ever go out of fashion? writes Melody Foreman.

War. It's a perpetual factor of humanity which every generation accommodates, either directly or indirectly. It's inescapable, it's horrible but let's face it, despite Tony Blair's fantasy as supreme planetary peacemaker, it's always going to be happening around us. And as the character Mother Courage herself admits, people live off war and actively thrive on it too. It's as if fighting is living and for many living is fighting with or without bullets.

It's this knowledge and wisdom which is cannily used to propel acting legend Fiona Shaw into, I'd argue, her finest performance as the feisty merchant woman in the National Theatre's production of a play written exactly 70 years ago and premiered in Zurich in 1941.

Shaw, aided by Deborah Warner's sharp direction, Tom Pye's explosive and active set design, plus raunchy music from a Duke Special's live band, convinces and captures us as she follows various raggedy army regiments from place to place during the thirty years war in Scandinavia. The direction, sound (Andrew Bruce and Nick Lidster) and lighting (Jean Kalman) are so superb the action could be now in Afghanistan, it could be the future, or it could be the 17th century - the era in which the German playwright Brecht originally set this epic drama. War is war - whatever the time or the place and someone somewhere will realise there's money to be made. Cue then the operatic entrance of La Courage atop her wagon in rock chic leader mode - the pedlar supreme in warrior woman costumes designed by a talented Ruth Myers.

Mother Courage (real name Anna Fierling) is on a devastatingly personal crusade then to profit out of a long and bloody conflict by selling buckles, and boots, beer and ammunition. It is an honesty of spirit purveyed by Shaw that makes her irresistible to watch. Why? Probably because power and survival are often linked to the commodities we own and/or aspire to have.

Pulling her wagon of rags and looted bric-a-brac through camps and desolate places it's remarkably convenient for her to ignore the shells exploding around her ears when there's a sale to be made or a shoelace to barter over.

She gets extra money too when she agrees not only to sell a chicken to a cook who is under orders to feed a hungry, demanding General (Colin Stinton) but for an extra guilder or two she will pluck the bird herself. She's all heart.

Some might say she's a mercenary beast with little thought but for herself. Others would describe her as a genius at survival because she knows nobody wins a war and so she just bloody well gets on with the business of living. Hence her anger when her two sons, Eiliff and Swiss Cheese, both of different fathers, join up and leave her with her mute daughter Kathryn (Sophie Stone) to haul the wagon unprotected and alone. Men? War? Do they ever learn?

Energetic, powerful and showing the fire in his belly admired by any recruiting sergeant we see an amazingly toned Clifford Samuel as Eiliff run off to fight in scene two. His mother rages and warns her simpler son, Swiss Cheese (Harry Melling), of his brother's foolhardy and reckless ways.

But she loses him too nonetheless when he signs up as the soldier paymaster to a general. He returns one day though with his regimental box of cash, tries to hide it in the wagon, gets caught and murdered for his actions by three thugs in khaki led by a macho Anthony Mark Barrow as "The One with the Eyepatch".

Watch Mother Courage then when these executioners grimly ask her to identify the bullet-raddled body before her. "Is she sure she can't recognise him? Absolutely sure?" they demand with menace. Courage shakes her head slowly, knowing if she cries out in pain they will kill her too for hiding the cash.

"No," she smiles weakly. "Well, we'll have to chuck him in a pit then wiv no name," says The One with the Eyepatch and off go the men into the darkness carrying the lifeless and bloodied body of Swiss Cheese.

A peroxide prostitute Yvette (Charlotte Randle) adds more Brechtian realism to this play and poignant moments are added as we watch Courage's mute daughter Kathryn covet Yvette's call girl red shoes.

What also makes this play so accessible today is not only its frighteningly common theme but writer Tony Kushner's excellent adaptation from the original script.

As he explains: "This play places us in judgement of the actions of a woman who inhabits a universe defined by war, who often makes calamitous choices but who makes them faced with scarcities and perils so severe her choices are unbearably hard, and sometimes all but impossible. She's egotistical because she has almost nothing, She's selfish but she's spared nothing."

The description of the scenes and/or location in this National production hang over the stage on great banners of marker penned notes. And it was a touch of genius to employ the fabulously sharp American literary legend Gore Vidal to be the voice-over artist for each scene introduction.

It was Vidal, author of a canon of works including A Thirsty Evil and The Season of Comfort, who once remarked: "Why do governments pursue wars? Loot. They want to balance the budget."

* Mother Courage and her Children is at The National Theatre until December 8. Ticket hotline: 020 7542 3000.

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