A Bertolt Brecht play, even without knowing which one or what it’s about, promises to be an intellectual affair in which tough questions are asked and fleshed out characters try to answer them. This is particularly the case with “Mother Courage and Her Children”, a Stratford Festival play which debuted on May 30, 2014. Translated by David Edgar and directed by Martha Henry, Seanna McKenna plays the titular Mother Courage, one of the few large, meaty and well-rounded roles for women in theatre.
But perhaps it was too much for McKenna to take on, as she never came even close to symbolizing the grittiness and determination of Mother Courage. It’s a character who sees all three of her teenage children die within a 12-year period during the Thirty Years’ War, but still manages to maintain a steely resolve of doing whatever’s necessary to get by. Mother Courage is the epitome of strength, perseverance and canniness, a woman who’s willing to profit from the brutalities of war by looking the other way on ethics and morals.
And because the play is set between the years of 1624 to 1636, with Mother Courage hauling around a canteen wagon filled with products to sell, she should be a physically strong woman, too, one of solid peasant stock who can more than carry her own. To that end, McKenna put on some padding under her garb but it still failed to achieve the right effect. She may have been bulkier than usual, but there was still an air about her that implied crassness instead of toughness.
Her children, Eilif (E.B. Smith), Kattrin (Carmen Grant) and Swiss Cheese (Antoine Yared), more physically and emotionally suited their roles, but not to a consistently greater degree than McKenna. Smith has the imposing strength and rippling muscles necessary for his heroic soldier character, but fails to convey the bumbling sense of duty adequately (also, what’s with his dog tags and modern-day military exercise outfit?). Yared, on the other hand, has the unflinching honesty of his character covered, but doesn’t take his simpleton-mindedness to a great enough degree.
The exception to this trio is Grant, who plays her Kattrin marvellously as a dumb, mute child who redeems herself terrifically by play’s end. There’s little not to be entranced with, as Grant grunts, agitates and crouches with full effort. Though she doesn’t speak a single word during “Mother Courage”, she doesn’t need to: her face and body language tell us everything.
The supporting cast is a mixed bag of treats and darts, too, with Geraint Wyn Davies as the cook being the standout. He’s gruff and mean, and yet there’s a hint of compassion within him tinged with self-protection. It’s a character we can believe in, and Wyn Davies gives us plenty of reasons to do so. Ben Carlson as the chaplain is almost at his level, grudgingly switching roles during the war without fully compromising his values.
Deidre Gillard-Rowlings as Yvette Pottier is another delight, morphing from army whore to a pseudo-genteel trophy wife with comfort and surety. Particularly enjoyable is her scene with Peter Hutt, her much, much older colonel husband. There’s a superficial seriousness about their encounter that just barely disguises the ridiculousness underneath, and both actors carry it off splendidly. And though she only appeared briefly as the farmer’s wife, Patricia Collins injected great humour into her role, praying and praying and praying, unintentionally creating a diversion for Kattrin.
John Pennoyer as the designer delivered an interesting concept by sticking closely to Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt way of designing the set, where the bare essentials were meant to represent the totality of their meaning, as well as including placards to indicate which scene and year we were in. To completely involve your imagination in filling in the blanks, all the other factors have to be perfectly balanced — which they weren’t. Because McKenna was too smooth and glib with her lines and the good players didn’t have the support they needed, “Mother Courage” fell far short of the heights it could have easily reached.
Verdict: a rare miss for the Stratford Festival with McKenna being entirely the wrong actor for the lead role.
“Mother Courage and Her Children” September 21 at the Tom Patterson Theatre. For more information and tickets, visit the Stratford Festival’s website.