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?

The giants inside

Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby. Royal Court Theatre and Lisa Dwan, State Theatre Centre of WA, February 14.

Mozart Dances, Mark Morris Dance Group, His Majesty’s Theatre, February 13.

THERE were giants inside as well as outside during Perth’s first festival weekend. While Mark Morris and Mozart ruled with joie de vivre at His Majesty’s, Lisa Dwan and Beckett shook the soul at the State Theatre Centre’s Studio Underground in three short works of obsidian darkness.

Lisa Dwan in Footfalls. Photo: Tanya Voltchanskaya

Lisa Dwan in Footfalls. Photo: Tanya Voltchanskaya

It takes less than an hour to experience Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby but their essence is timeless and, for the duration of the performance, time is suspended. All extraneous light is rigorously excluded from the Studio Underground and Dwan is seen but dimly through James Farncombe’s hazy but finely focused lighting. The audience, rendered almost unnaturally still and quiet in the blackness, is however on high alert internally as Dwan embodies terrifying visions of disintegration, loneliness and death.

Not I is a tumbling stream of words from which key phrases emerge and are then dragged back into the jumble. Sharp little barks, cackles, growls and gasps punctuate the flow of an old woman’s fractured recollections that keep circling back to something that apparently happened on an April morning to “she”, the younger self. Only the actress’s mouth is visible as the woman remembers many harsh things but finds her voice, in that beautiful use of the word. It means finding the true self.

In Footfalls the finding of the voice has been more difficult for a woman attending a dying mother. A rectangle of light imprisons her as she paces up and down – there is room for nine steps only – but at least she can hear her steps on a floor from which she has removed the covering. They confirm her existence. Dwan, her voice low and melodious, also speaks the words of the unseen mother, a woman who seems to have sucked the life from her daughter.

Rockaby also heads inexorably towards the void as a woman sits in a rocking chair with only her face and hands visible as she sways in and out of the light. The sense of desolation is immense as the woman describes looking through the window to other windows, always alone despite searching for others like her. Towards the end of the piece one can see only half Dwan’s face, a nightmarish effect.

Dwan is directed flawlessly by Walter Asmus, a longtime friend of Beckett. This trio of works and collaborators is a rare gift.

The season ends on Friday.

MOZART Dances reveals Mark Morris as the great magician of contemporary dance and its foremost optimist. In this seemingly carefree work Morris offers principles of profound beauty, not in a didactic way but with simplicity and grace. In Mozart Dances men and women are equal, each is an individual, there is strength to be gained from one another and there is belief in the power of love and joy.

From Double, the middle work in Mozart Dances

From Double, the middle work in Mozart Dances. Photo: Tanya Voltchanskaya

The work is abstract but packed with relationships, the foremost of which is with the score. Morris choreographs to three substantial Mozart piano works, each with three movements – about 90 minutes of music for orchestra and two solo pianists. It’s a huge canvas, yet Mozart Dances feels deliciously intimate as Morris sends 16 dancers whirling across the stage in a constant and felicitous flow in answer to the spring and essence of the music. They cover ground as bountifully as gazelles.

First up is Eleven, choreographed to Mozart’s relatively little known Piano Concerto No.11, in which Morris concentrates on the women, led by elfin Lauren Grant. There is a short introduction to the men of the company, bare-chested and wearing breeches that hint at the 18th century. After some lively unison dancing they stride off and the women take over, introducing motifs that will recur throughout the work.

Eleven is followed by Double for the men to the Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, the composer’s only work in that form. Echoing the structure of Eleven in reverse, Morris brings the women of the company on in the third movement. They are now wearing long floating skirts, reminiscent of those worn in Balanchine’s Serenade (just as Grant’s sudden fall to the ground in Eleven recalls a similar moment in that ballet). There’s a visual link to the diaphanous black the women wear in Eleven, but the atmospherics are completely different. The first costume is bold, the second is romantic.

Double, from Mark Morris's Mozart Dances

Double, from Mark Morris’s Mozart Dances. Photo: Tanya Voltchanskaya

Aaron Loux was the charming and fleet soloist in Double, wearing a frock coat that also nods to the 18th century. It moves beautifully and brings a whiff of gallantry to proceeedings. Again one notices the jaunty comings and goings, the powerful unison work and Morris’s unerring eye for pacing and timing but, above all, the emotional value of a movement and moment.

Finally, all 16 dancers, now dressed in white although not identically, come together for the 27th piano concerto (Mozart’s last) to mix, mingle, separate and connect in ways that delight the spirit.

While the mood of each dance is distinct, Morris propels each with nimble legs and feet, open-hearted upper bodies and multitudinous cheeky exits and entrances. With dancers as warmly engaged and witty as Morris’s there is every reason to believe that offstage life is just as interesting to them as what awaits onstage. These are not performers who disappear when you can’t see them.

Morris seamlessly interweaves steps and shapes from folk, the court, ballet and ordinary life while building a series of motifs that are sprinkled throughout, often with a new or unexpected touch. In Eleven the women at one point gather In a group and look upwards as if there is something mesmerising out of our sight, but not theirs. The men will later have their version of it. The same happens with fingers that are pointed as if to say, “you need to pay extra attention right now”. Often dancers will throw themselves into a generous, wide-armed whirl that feels less like a choreographed move than a spontaneous outburst of ecstasy.

The much-repeated action of falling has different qualities but always ends in recovery and re-entry into the group, nowhere more potently expressed than in the glorious slow movement of Double. It is central to Mozart Dances in position (it is the fifth of the nine movements played) and content and has the most sombre tones. Even so, there are gleams of light as the fallen and isolated are gathered up. Darkness is then quickly banished in the final dance, Twenty-Seven, and Mozart Dances ends on a highly playful note with all the men and women, dressed in fresh, non-identical white, getting on like a house on fire.

For its brief Perth engagement Mark Morris Dance Group was vividly accompanied by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and Melbourne pianist Amir Farid, conducted by MMDG music director Colin Fowler. Fowler joined Farid for the sonata, a tremendous musical highlight.

I am sorry Mozart Dances won’t be on the program when MMDG comes to Sydney in June as it can be seen again and again with pleasure. But an orchestra has to be available, and a second pianist, which is undoubtedly the barrier. So Sydney will get a smaller-scale program of four works – A Wooden Tree, Festival Dance, Pacific and Whelm – accompanied by the MMDG Music Ensemble.