Douglas Kennedy On Centre Stage.
The Queensland Theatre Company’s Brecht-Fast.
German playwright Bertolt Brecht is hardly everyone’s cup of tea or slice of toast, but rather to many a bowl of sour kraut with a style difficult to digest.
The poet, playwright, theatre director and Marxist is both loved and hated within theatrical circles in what appears to On Centre Stage to be in fairly equal measure.
When – a lifetime ago – I studied drama at college my mentor was a pub crawling, girl chasing fellow with a big heart and a passion for Brecht and everything he represented in the theatre.
The experience of working with Barry – and undoubtedly being exposed to his prejudices- left me with at least a sympathetic ear for Brecht although it was The Threepenny Opera (written with composer Kurt Weill) and some sketches about life in Nazi Germany which really touched me.
Brecht, who was born in 1898, is credited by his champions – such as Barry – with creating a dramatic style known as Epic Theatre.
He believed theatre to be a, ‘forum for political ideas’ or an examination of, ‘the critical aesthetics of dialectical materialism.’
See what I mean about the sour kraut crack?
In simple terms he wanted his audience to take the theatrical experience as a way of connecting with issues of social injustice and political themes rather than simply be carried away with the story.
That’s a shame – because despite my sympathetic ear – I like being carried away with the story as much as I enjoy savouring the issues long after the curtain has come down.
I don’t see a lot of Brecht in Brisbane – I’d love someone to do the Threepenny Opera with Pirate Jenny, Polly Peachum and, of course, Mack the Knife – but it’s the German writer’s Mother Courage and Her Children that’s claiming the attention in Brisbane at the moment.
Queensland Theatre Company artistic director Wesley Enoch – as oft mentioned the country’s first indigenous AB for a major State company – has teamed up with Paula Nazarski to give the play an indigenous skew.
That’s particularly interesting as Brecht wrote Mother Courage in 1939 – within a month – using the Thirty Years War in Europe in the 1600s as a platform to examine both the injustice and the business of war.
His underlying message, however, was about the rise of Nazi Germany and impending Second World War rather than the 1600s.
Now Enoch and Nazarski have pitched Mother Courage into a post-apocalyptic outback Australia, where two forces are warring over mining rites.
Ursual Yovich – the play’s best on-stage assert – plays the canteen pulling Mother Courage who- along with her three children and various hitch-hikers – cunningly drags her broken down Ute through the conflict.
This is a story of survival and a mother’s desire to protect her children (a post-apocalyptic Stolen Generation theme) and as such fits comfortably into the indigenous record despite being based on things that happened hundreds of years ago on the other side of the world.
There’s a debate going on at present within the theatrical world about the ethics and, for some, even morality of adapting classics and then taking ownership of them.
We don’t know what Brecht might feel about ownership – I suspect he enjoyed a little credit – but he did say something encouraging about adaptations.
“Anyway one can be creative. It is rewriting others that’s the challenge.”
As for this production?
There’s no doubt that it’s uneven in its execution, but there were some things I really enjoyed such as Ursula Yovich’s central performance, John Rodgers’ original music, the set complete with broken Ute and the examination of the idea that Australia could ever be entrenched in a civil war.
As you’d say in a tweet or a text: ‘scary stuff!’
There’s still time to catch Mother Courage and Her Children at the Queensland Theatre Company’s Playhouse Theatre.