Courage, mon brave

Mother Courage at the National Theatre
Mother Courage at the National Theatre

It’s difficult to imagine a production which has generated more binary responses than Deborah Warner’s Mother Courage and Her Children at the National Theatre.  Even before it opened it was controvertial, with The Guardian at least, and this has been followed up by a remarkably diverse set of reviews.

The Independent was smitten, awarding four stars.  Praising the “extraordinary vitality of Deborah Warner’s modern-dress production” it was deemed “a creatively controversial production” with a “wonderful, aggressively disguised sensitivity” from Shaw in the title role.

The Guardian liked it too, with another four stars. Mr Billington thinks that this show “frees Brecht’s play from pious reverence and releases its dynamic energy” and “brings Brecht up to date”, but does acknowledge that “not everything is right” and that the final image “misses the key point”.

The FT thinks it’s a solid three stars, asking “Over the top?” and answering “Perhaps”, but saying that “Shaw’s Mother Courage fits the bill here” and that the translation has “raw energy that makes its depiction of endless conflict seem bang up to date”.  Nevertheless, Ms Hemming does conclude that the production is “distinctly patchy” and that there are “big problems: it belabours the play’s relevance too much, is too loud (a great deal of shouting) and it lacks shape and cohesion”.

The Times concurs, awarding a somewhat grudging three stars, saying of Shaw that “she has her moments” but finding little to be enthusiastic about.

Reuters says that the show “shoots blanks”.  Despite there being “much to admire”, “some sequences drag”, the language “lacks memorable lines” and thinks that “pacing might be at fault”.

All of which is pretty generous compared with Charles Spencer in The Telegraph, who opens with a sentence unlikely to win him friends at the National. “Here she comes again, Mother Courage and her bloody cart, condemning audiences to three-and-a-quarter hours of hectoring lectures, unrepentant Marxism, tiresome alienation devices and a bucketful of condensed misery” and plumps for a single solitary star.  And that’s not all.  Shaw, singing “abysmally”, is “one of the most embarrassing spectacles I have ever seen in a theatre”.  He even guns for Duke Special, the amiable musician who escapes almost unscathed through most reviews, saying he has the “silliest dreadlocks” and finishes up by calling the show “merely idiotic, full of sound and gimmickry, and signifying almost nothing”.  Ouch.

Lies, lies, lies, says The Stage. “Fiona Shaw’s Mother Courage dominates the Olivier stage”, “it is a stunning performance” and the music of Mr Special is the “outstanding innovation”. Mr Shenton, blogging from the front lines of the same publication has a different view, wishing that he “could report that it was worth the wait, but there’s an awful lot of waiting to be done as Fiona Shaw trundles that infernal cart around the battlefields of Europe” and suggesting that the preview audience released at the interval “had a mostly lucky escape”.

The Evening Standard says that “doom-mongers will be disappointed” and deemed the show “competent, confident, if ultimately underwhelming”.

In terms of blogs, The Whingers seem to be newly appointed UN envoys and have yet to opine, as has Life in the Cheap Seats and A Younger Theatre, but the newly named Tyro Theatre Critic didn’t love it, declaring “tedious doesn’t cover it”, decrying its “horrifically limited effect”, confronting the elephant in the room when he says that “the easily avoided key mistake is letting Fiona Shaw sing” and concluding that the play is “just abysmally served in this production”.

I won’t even repeat my views.