Thursday, November 26, 2009

Today's Mother Courages

I've never seen an entire row of people leave during a play. Singles, couples, parents with screaming brats in tow, but never ten people at once. They were quite clearly a coach party, or corporate hospitality gone wrong. Mother Courage and Her Children at the National evidently proved too much for them.

And why shouldn't it? Brecht's 1939 play features a woman (Fiona Shaw storming the stage) who drags her caravan of provisions to sell across the battlefields of the Thirty Years' War, accompanied by her children, who are gradually conscripted, raped or killed. She sells because she wants to and because she has to, and every move she makes takes her closer to safety and to ruin. Her choices are impossible, and we feel pity, anger, grief and love at the same time. It is a complex masterpiece.

It also a prime exponent of Brecht's Epic Theatre, which tries to convey moral messages through a variety of unsubtle ways, so Mother Courage had scene titles on canvas flags (which were read out by Gore Vidal) and plenty of rock songs. It was during one of the songs - which were by no means discreditable or unlyrical - that the row got up and left. It's a little too in-your-face for those more used to revivals of My Fair Lady.




One of the best things about the show was the light Mother Courage shed on today's banking crisis (much more, to judge from critical reaction, than the speed-written reaction to the recession, Power of Yes). What we see is a woman who ploughs on much further than she ought to because she feels that she cannot stop: there is money to be made, even if you do have to cross (not metaphorical) minefields.

This is surely not unlike what those who followed derivatives pioneers experienced: with some knowledge of the danger, they kept going. Perhaps that is too kind to the bankers - most people would propose that they had no knowledge of the danger, which gives Mother Courage one up on them. The play stands for our appetite for risk and our stomach for failure, and how well we can ever reconcile the two.

What happens to Mother Courage in the end? I don't want to ruin the play, but suffice it to say, bankers ought to look around themselves before deciding that forward is always best.

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