06. November 2016 Less Wagon, More Courage

Theater NO99 has the reputation of being an avant-garde playhouse that, like no other, is presently capable of making a political impact. Veiko Õunpuu’s tepid municipal theatre production of Bert Brecht’s Mother Courage does not fulfil the claim.

Maarika Vaarik sings, nay roars, the song of Mother Courage, and with her the whole NO99 ensemble, “Stop all the troops: here’s Mother Courage! / Hey, Captain, let them come and buy!” Staring straight ahead, lined up like a chorus on the right edge of the stage, all the actors have an instrument in front of them, and they play them rhythmically, cacophonically, even if they are melodic instruments: electric piano, accordion. Until it hurts, “Cannon is rough on empty bellies: First with my meat they should be crammed.”

Veiko Õunpuu’s production of Bert Brecht’s drama Mother Courage and Her Children, written in Swedish exile in 1939, begins with a startling, even aggressive attack. In twelve acts, the play tells the story of a freelancing canteen woman who, with a wagon (there was even a stamp in the GDR of this special prop), moves in search of custom, from one site to the next of a rather a-historical Thirty Year’s War. It acts at least as much as a symbol of capitalism as of a war of everyone against everyone, as it corresponds to the Second World War.

The bourgeoisie tap their feet

“Let all of you who still survive / Get out of bed and look alive!” shrieks Maarika Vaarik frighteningly and you think this could be a very political evening. The performance you’ve dreamt of so long. A performance that might not be able to solve the fundamental problem of Brecht’s theatre, but it’s a start. This is because these epochal and also grand works, with which a convinced communist would so gladly have brought the blue flower of dialectical historical materialism to a working audience, are also somewhat dead.

The bourgeoisie, hated by the author, tap their feet to the music, some, if they went to high school in Germany, hum along a few lyrics they recall from the school performance 20 years ago.

As early as 2001, the famed German director and long-time head of the Berliner Ensemble founded by Brecht, Claus Peymann, described the works of the house god as “as worn down as an old operetta.” In other words, to play it is pure nostalgia and anti-productive. But Brecht would not have wanted to be that. On the contrary, from his point of view, a theatre should be a “place for the scientific production of scandals.” A play should create not fear and compassion, let alone harmony and beauty, but anger and turmoil.

This avant-garde impulse can still survive. And you actually would trust few ensembles to be able to pick it up and arouse it as much as the NO99 team. But it doesn’t happen: Veiko Õunpuu succeeds – there is no doubt about it – in creating a lovely, a quite entertaining, but completely harmless evening at the theatre.

“Katrin – the most thankless role in German drama”

Vaarik is a great Mother Courage. And the acting is outstanding, in particular Gert Raudsep, who, as the chaplain, wears a striking “I love Pope Francis” jersey under a black suede jacket, and the superb facial expressions of Rea Lest, who plays the mute Katrin all evening in a highly energetic manner, perhaps the most thankless role in German drama: she is raped, disfigured, mocked, and then, by climbing onto her mother’s wagon and drumming wildly on the roof, at the end of the play saves the city of Halle from a surprise night attack. Of course, after so much action, the victim incarnate is shot dead.

The fact that Veiko Õunpuu does not achieve more is a consequence of the idea of making a completely a-historical event from the pseudohistorical war. With the wagon, the abstraction still works through the force of its presence: Mother Courage’s holy of holies is portrayed by a huge wall of steel plates reddened by rust and extending over the entire width of the stage that can be pulled from the distance to the foreground.

The costumes, however, are comical at best. In the opening act, instead of mercenary soldiers we encounter athletes in snazzy tennis dresses and 1920s pop tunes. At the beginning, Mother Courage is wearing a flowered dress with a dark woollen jacket, later, when her business is doing especially well, she puts on a sequined blouse that emphasizes her embonpoint and white, stretch knee breeches. And she carries an over-sized artificial patent leather handbag containing a pink wallet from which, at the end, she pays for the funeral of her daughter.

“As vague as possible”

Thus every reference, every clear indication of an intended grievance is missing – but then why the updated costume? While in Brecht, the artificially made-up story serves to acknowledge the (own) present, in this update, the age of the play and its outdated ideology shine through – not because they must, but because the modernization itself remains so unclear, so unspecific, shying from any direct accusation.

Only where it is overcome, where brutality and bloodlust are choreographed in ecstatic tribal dances or articulated in full-body war paint, where the words and the aesthetic doctrine are questioned and the song becomes a scream, is the play able to captivate, torment and oppress. Otherwise, it’s merely entertaining.