Where there’s muck there’s brass

Belvoir, Sydney, June 10

MOTHER Courage is one of the little people, born somewhere undesirable at the wrong time. A war she didn’t have anything to do with starting grinds on, stops for a bit and then starts up again. What’s a woman to do? Mother Courage goes on to the front foot. As a Yorkshireman might say, “where’s there’s muck there’s brass”. That’s a 20th-century saying but apparently there was a 17th-century English proverb that covered pretty much the same ground. Wherever there’s unpleasant work there is money to be made. Certainly where there is destruction on a grand scale many people will lose everything. But some people make a lot. Consider, for instance, KBR Inc, a former subsidiary of the well-connected company Halliburton, which received US government contracts worth nearly $US40 billion for work relating to the Iraq war. Mother Courage works on a rather less elevated level, hanging around the fringes of conflict with her wagon, selling a bit of this and a bit of that. She makes a living. (That phrase takes on some piquancy when used in relation to a war zone.)

Robyn Nevin in Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Robyn Nevin in Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Brecht set his play during the cataclysmic Thirty Years War that occupied a substantial part of the first half of 17th-century Europe but its story is imperishable. Kingdoms and principalities may come and go but war is a sure thing and so are the profits that go with it. Brecht’s war isn’t the clash of bodies and armaments and a little touch of Harry in the night; it’s the one that runs parallel with it, the one that feeds off the fighting while feeding those who fight, and possibly keeps it all going longer than it might otherwise. Who can possibly say?

As John Willett writes in Brecht in Context (Methuen, 1984), “Brecht does that seemingly simple thing which his often mystifying theory of alienation is intended to make possible. He takes a new look at a familiar area, and by so doing he suggests to others how they too can look at it afresh.” In other words, we need to be able to see things doubly – in the light of deeply ingrained beliefs but also with a mind open to new and perhaps strange ways of perceiving. Things are rarely as cut and dried as black hats versus white hats.

Mother Courage – the character – brilliantly embodies the kind of duality that’s constantly shifting. For every good quality she displays there is evidence of its opposite. She is funny and grim, brave and cowardly, generous and venal, protective of her children while failing to protect them, open to a spot of romance and hard as a nut, and on it goes. Is she really courageous or a vulture opportunistically picking at whatever bones come her way?

Under Eamon Flack’s direction for Belvoir, Robyn Nevin shows you all this in a riveting performance that feels perfectly true to the intentions of the work and the process of conveying it. I came across the following when reading Eric Bentley’s The Theory of the Modern Stage (Penguin, 1968) and it resounded greatly. This is Brecht on his wife Helene Weigel, saying that she had learned to let attention “move away from her, the actress, to the content: to what was enacted … never did she set out to show her own greatness, but always the greatness of those whom she portrayed.” (Translation by John Berger and Anna Bostock.) Weigel was the first Mother Courage.

Flack has also been very astute in the selection of supporting actors. It’s true that Belvoir has an increasingly good record of looking beyond performers who match the predominately white audience, but here the casting has particular bite. (Most people don’t notice absence. It’s why for aeons there were female directors were incredibly scarce: male artistic directors just didn’t notice they weren’t there. People get used to seeing people who are like them and assuming all is right with the world. It’s not a state particularly conducive to creative thinking.) In Mother Courage the diversity of the actors’ appearances forces you to attend just that little bit more actively. A Kattrin whose work we are already familiar and therefore comfortable with? A young woman who looks rather like a young Nevin? Too easy. Newcomer Emele Ugavule was an inspired choice and she is unforgettable as Mother Courage’s daughter, her muteness explained in one terrible throwaway line that efficiently covers the kinds of things that happen to young women during wartime and demonstrates Mother Courage’s practical acceptance of it.

Emele Ugavule as Kattrin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Emele Ugavule as Kattrin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

The production is a bare-bones one, clearly in a theatrical setting although not one with lots of bells and whistles. It is modest in its means and that modesty becomes it. It is particularly endearing, for instance, that while the evidence suggests Nevin’s exceptional gifts do not extend to singing and dancing, she does these things nevertheless. This play – this production – can incorporate gear shifts such as this that make one smile. (Paula Arundell, on the other hand, lends considerable vocal skills, along with a sizzling, gleeful presence, to the role of Yvette, another woman who uses what she has to get by.)

The ideas come through loud and clear in Michael Gow’s strong, clear translation and in the hands of all the actors. But then what? Horace Walpole comes to the rescue (as do my long-ago drama studies at the University of Newcastle). Walpole wrote that the world was a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel. Same thing, different outcomes. If you didn’t laugh you’d cry, and all that.

Mother Courage chooses to laugh, if you like. We can choose to cry, if we want. We can do both.

Mother Courage and Her Children has one of Western theatre’s indelible endings. There are no children left after a brief breakout of peace has been stamped out by a resumption of hostilities, but Mother Courage does not crack. She stands in front of her wagon, hoists up the shafts and starts pulling. In Nevin’s face I saw stoicism and determination mixed with dread, or at least that is what I believe I saw, which amounts to the same thing. The defiance is thrilling and terrifying. Who amongst us would have her guts in such circumstances?

Mother Courage and Her Children was written just before the start of World War II and first produced in 1941, in Zurich. Did Samuel Beckett, writing (in French) in 1948 learn something from this dogged expression of the will to endure? Certainly another of Western theatre’s indelible endings expresses a similar spirit.

Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?

Estragon: Yes, let’s go.

They do not move.

Staying, going, surviving, whatever it takes. Would we do any better?

Five plays

The Pride, Side Pony Productions, Bondi Pavilion Theatre, March 25; Fight Night, The Border Project/Ontroerend Goed, Wharf 2, Sydney Theatre Company, March 26 (matinee); The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, Lambert House Enterprises, Gingers at the Oxford Hotel, March 26; Clybourne Park, Ensemble Theatre, March 27 (matinee); Stitching, Little Spoon Theatre, TAP Gallery, March 27.

WHEN I was in fulltime employment I rarely went to a matinee and I saw shows almost exclusively at their opening performance. First nights are usually great fun, of course. The foyer is crowded with friends and acquaintances of the cast and crew and many in the audience know one another well. The best seats in the house are given over to critics, politicians and maybe a celebrity or two; there will be industry figures and perhaps a few representatives of sponsors; and many – sometimes all – in the house will not have paid for their tickets. I don’t want to call this an artificial situation because it is an accepted, regular part of the process of putting on a play, an opera, a ballet or whatever. But it is not representative of the rest of the season.

That standing ovation given to a musical may indeed turn out to have been for one night only, fuelled by the show’s producers and invited celebrities leaping immediately to their feet. The house that didn’t have a spare seat at the premiere may be far easier to access once word of mouth does its influential work. On the other hand, it’s sometimes possible to find much greater enthusiasm for a piece when it’s played for a general public audience than for a tough opening night crowd – the opera is a good example.

Whatever the result, I always find it rewarding to see a show during the run, to observe the make up of the audience, to listen to their comments and to gauge their reactions.

The cast of The Ensemble's Clybourne Park. Photo: Clare Hawley

The cast of The Ensemble’s Clybourne Park. Photo: Clare Hawley

This past week I saw five pieces of theatre, only one of which – Stitching – was having its opening night. It was therefore a good week in which to see paying customers in action. In Fight Night, the audience is literally seen in action because its attitudes help shape the show. It is a deliberately manipulative piece in which the audience is asked to vote for actors representing politicians in an election. Additionally, the audience is asked to give some information about age, income, and attitudes. I was at a matinee, so wasn’t entirely surprised to see that more than 85 per cent of my audience was aged 60 or older.

At Fight Night everyone is given an electronic pad that can register choices, although as is the case with most situations where one appears to have alternatives, there are strong limits to the number and nature of those offered. The actors make their pitches, we vote, they throw in a couple of not entirely democratic twists and turns, and we’re left with one person who is supposed to be the one most of us want. The result is actually deeply unsurprising.

The best bit at the performance I attended was near the end, when one of the actor/politicians persuades some audience members to opt out of this obviously skewed process by handing in their electronic pads and leaving the theatre. One man in this dissident group stomped out, throwing the word fascists at us as he departed. The actor representing the last politician in the race commented that this man hadn’t understood the play, but I thought that unfair. Fight Night only works if the audience pretty much agrees to be manipulated, so I thought it a bit thick to knock someone for having been taken in to the degree that he actually felt something important was really at stake.

If you want to see important things at stake, The Ensemble’s Clybourne Park is the go – if you can get a ticket. The season at The Ensemble’s Kirribilli home was sold out very early but there are two extra performances at The Concourse in Chatswood. It is highly recommended.

In acts set 50 years apart, there is a beautifully wrought discussion about race and history seen through the prism of a family home, although with intimations of the wider world. In the first half a white couple is about to move, their house having been sold to a black family – unseen – who will be the first coloured people in the neighbourhood. In the second half the house, now dilapidated, is about to be demolished. Both situations spark fractious argument undimmed by a half-century of change.

Tanya Goldberg directs an unimprovable cast of seven – Paula Arundell, Thomas Campbell, Briallen Clarke, Nathan Lovejoy, Wendy Strehlow, Richard Sydenham, Cleave Williams – in a production that is exceptionally funny, sometimes quite shocking, and always very, very sharp.

I also very much enjoyed The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, David Drake’s autobiographical 1993 piece (originally a solo show) about growing up gay. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the additional scene Drake has written to take same-sex marriage into account, but Ben Hudson and James Wright’s performances lit up the tiny Gingers space. There’s nowhere to hide for actors and audience members alike when both are scarcely an arm’s length apart and there was lots of lovely eye contact.

Hudson and Wright gave their all in front of a very small audience. It was undeservedly small, but part of the truth of theatre is that the house won’t necessarily be packed at all times – something the inveterate first-nighter doesn’t get to see. The cast of The Pride had the same experience this week as they acted out what was, for me, a fairly ho-hum fable about domination and the loss of it. The Pride has had success elsewhere but I was underwhelmed. As I was about Anthony Neilson’s two-hander Stitching, which has also received praise in other productions. Stitching presents a relationship in big, big trouble. To spice things up it jumps around in time and introduces hot and heavy role-playing.

Unfortunately actors Lara Lightfoot and Wade Doolan were unable to make me believe in their plight or sympathise with it, but others may feel differently. That’s the beauty of an audience, that singular entity made up of many individuals.

The Pride ends on April 5. The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me ends April 6. Stitching ends April 12. Fight Night ends April 13. Clybourne Park ends at The Ensemble April 19 (season sold out); extra performances at The Concourse, Chatswood, April 23 and 24.