Mother Courage And Her Children
MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Is Brecht’s great, allegorical play Mother Courage And Her Children particularly suited to a theatre company, such as Birds Of Paradise, which integrates disabled and non-disabled actors? To even raise the question is contentious.
Shouldn’t all roles be, as American theatre scholar Richard Schechner argues (in his intriguingly politically incorrect phrase), “blind cast”; i.e. without regard to ‘race’, sex, sexual orientation, disability or any other factor? If we can have, as we have had, a female Hamlet, and, perhaps more importantly, many a Richard III played by a non-disabled actor, why should we not have a disabled Mother Courage?
Some schools of liberal thought would object to me even raising the question. One should not, I hear them say, even bring the question of disability into the matter, but, rather, view the work of Birds Of Paradise exactly as one would the work of any other company.
However, as one watches superb actors Alison Peebles (Mother Courage) and Garry Robson (The Cook) pulling Courage’s iconic trader’s cart across a European war zone, there is, undeniably, an additional power generated by the fact that the actors have disabilities; Peebles was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis more than a decade ago, and Robson was disabled by childhood polio, and uses a wheelchair in performance. In this single moment – full of physical strain, determination and pathos – the actors and director Morven Gregor prove that integrated theatre companies have distinctive dramatic possibilities.
If this theatrical image resonates, however, it does not epitomise Gregor’s variably acted and somewhat uneven presentation of Lee Hall’s crisp, if imperfect adaptation. The director’s decision to drag Brecht’s play (a 17th-century allegory for the Second World War) into the modern day (complete with anarchist graffiti and an Adidas logo on the dress of Courage’s daughter Kattrin) is particularly odd. The effect (given Brecht’s alienating intent) is to create a puzzling sense of historical incongruity, rather than to heighten the drama’s ‘relevance’.
Elsewhere, the death of Kattrin (played well by Ashley Smith) is thrown away by the tightness of the platform on which the actress has to perform it. Dominic Muldowney’s musical compositions are – in this performance, at least – a poor relation of Paul Dessau’s excellent originals.
This is, then, a Courage with pathos and some powerful images, but without the aesthetic consistency required to pull this great play to its theatrical and political destination.
MacRobert run ended; touring until April 2. For further information, visit: www.birdsofparadisetheatre.co.uk
An abridged version of this review was first published in the Sunday Herald on March 20 2011
© Mark Brown