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Tanja Jacobs as Mother Courage, Jani Lauzon as Yvette
Tanja Jacobs as Mother Courage, Jani Lauzon as Yvette

Theatre Review: "Mother Courage and Her Children" at the NAC

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Mother Courage and Her Children runs at the NAC in Ottawa through January 30. Resident theatre critic Connie Meng was at the opening night and has this review.

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Connie Meng
Theatre Critic

Peter Hinton's new version of Bertolt Brecht's classic drama MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN currently running at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa is strangely unmoving.  Set in the seventeenth century during the Thirty Years War, it tells the story of Mother Courage, a war-profiteering canteen woman whose maternal and entrepreneurial instincts are in constant conflict. 

Like all of Mr. Hinton's productions, the technical aspects are stunning.  Teresa Pryzbylski's set with its shiny black floor, light towers used as both wings and ceilings and six rotating pianos backed by a cyc is elegantly playable.  Her costumes are interesting, especially those of the various soldiers that come from different periods, emphasizing the point that all wars are basically the same.

Jock Munro's lighting is spectacularly effective, particularly the swaths of red on the cyc.  The sound, designed by Troy Slocum, is excellent and subtle.  I liked the birds and the tension of a sustained long note that ends one of the scenes.

Allen Cole has done a nice job with the music, making good use of this multi-talented cast as musicians, in particular Jeremiah Sparks.  Although not credited in the program, the two strongest songs were originally written by Kurt Weill.

As for the cast, this 40th Anniversary Company works very well as an ensemble.  Michael Blake is good as Eilif, Mother Courage's belligerent son, as is Waneta Storms as her mute daughter, Kattrin.  Matt Miwa, a last-minute replacement, is very good as the quiet and doomed Swiss Cheese.

Richard Donat gives a nicely modulated performance as the Chaplain.  As the Cook, Geordie Johnson gives us a strong and multi-layered character.  His performance of Kurt Weill's "The Solomon Song" is one of the vocal standouts.  The other is "Surabaya Johnny," also by Weill, delivered with passion and power by Jani Lauzon as Yvette, a camp follower.

Many great actresses have run aground on the shoals of the title role - Judi Dench, Fiona Shaw, Diana Rigg, Meryl Streep - to name a few.  Unfortunately Tanja Jacobs now joins the list.  Part of the problem is that her song lyrics are unintelligible and her dialogue often inaudible.  Perhaps the use of the vernacular tempts her into using a conversational tone that doesn't project.  I also missed the character's edge of flinty resourcefulness and was left with only a lack of self-awareness.  Miss Jacobs is an excellent actress, but for me her interpretation of Mother Courage just doesn't work.

Director Hinton's staging of the play is masterful, especially his use of the pianos, both as instruments and walls.  I loved his use of an overhead light batten as part of a battle effect.  As for his interpretation, if it is to keep the audience from identifying with the main character in the Brechtian epic theatre style, he succeeds.  Perhaps it's my own problem with the play.  I find it difficult to become intellectually involved with a play's ideas unless I identify to a certain extent with the characters.

However, the play's message resonates.  To quote Mr. Hinton, "Throughout the play we are reminded that no event is the result of a single cause or individual act."  The play makes it very clear that what's honored in war is condemned in peace. Brecht's grim play makes the point that all wars are the same and no one learns from any war.

On a scale on one to five, the National Arts Centre English Theatre/Manitoba Theatre Centre co-production of MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN gets four Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  For North Country Public Radio I'm Connie Meng.

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