Review: Mother Courage – Queensland Theatre Company and QPAC at The Playhouse, QPAC

Images: Rob Maccoll

The last time Herr Brecht and I crossed paths was in a high school drama room, some 16 years ago and, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t taken with his work. Come opening night of QTC’s indigenous production of his most famous play, and all I could remember about Brecht was that I was supposed to remember something about Brecht. Nonetheless, as the corrugated iron curtain flew up on Mother Courage, I was put at ease. These people I knew.

Probably his best known play, Brecht’s epic Mother Courage (1939) is set on the battlegrounds of the European thirty years’ war, 1618-1648. This production, adapted in a new translation by Wesley Enoch and Paula Nazarski, is set in a post-apocalyptic Australia, a world where ‘government is lost and human greed takes the form of mining armies.’ The indigenous population is clearly divided and, like the original, this Mother Courage is making her living – surviving the impossible odds – by profiteering from war.

The production, directed by Wesley Enoch, looks amazing; all credit to designer Christina Smith and lighting designer Ben Hughes – they do post-apocalyptic outback Queensland with a rusty, earthy panache, mixing light, textures and colours to create a warm yet war-torn space that is always interesting but never cluttered. Courage’s traditional wagon is, in this production, a stripped down ute which the company drag around the big open stage in the Playhouse; you can see all the way back and into the wings. (Ed: Brecht would have approved)

The cast are all instantly intriguing. Being a bit of an ethnic mongrel, I’m always interested to see a particular culture put their stamp on something foreign, like my Indian grandmother making curried tacos, if you will (they’re remarkably tasty).  So a troupe of Aboriginal actors performing a German play, translated into to English, then translated to Aboriginal English (reflecting the language spoken in Minjeeriba – North Stradbroke Island) does work, strangely enough. In the very Brechtian device of presenting a scene’s content in direct audience address before it’s played out, the cast acknowledges Brecht’s original and positions its own play in relation to it.  It works wonderfully well.

Never having seen an all-indigenous production of, well, anything, I was surprised at how much of the Aboriginal dialect could be easily understood, while the rest could be worked out within the context of the play. There is also a glossary included in the program (which I delighted in reading post-show, to find out what all the aunties in the audience were laughing at; it was very, very funny). Perhaps this is the reason Brechtian theatre is so studied – because the stories are so strong and so universal, the plays transcending culture and language, existing for all.

Ursula Yovich as Mother Courage is difficult to take your eyes off. She dominates the stage, sings like an angel and is terrifying and loving in equal measures. It struck me how similar the indigenous matriarch is to the matriarchs of my Iranian/Indian/Irish-Australian clan, and I felt like embracing and obeying her all at once.

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George Bostock and Roxanne McDonald

Mother Courage’s children are played by Luke Carroll (Eilif), Chenoa Deemal (Kattrin) and Eliah Watego (Swiss Cheese). George Bostock, the marvellous Roxanne McDonald, Dave Dow, Paula Nazarski, David Page, Robert Preston and Michael Tuahine make up the ensemble. At times the mix of ages and experience can make the playing uneven, but the group feels cohesive and real.

The music composed by John Rodgers is performed by Mark Atkins, Dave Dow, Michael Tuahine and the ensemble. Some pieces – in particular the Song of Capitulation and the scene it encompasses – are powerful and heartbreaking. All provide a moving soundtrack for the gypsy-like wanderings of Mother Courage and her clan through the wilderness.

As for Brecht and his play – to be honest, I still don’t care for it. I do, however, love what Wesley Enoch, Paula Nazarski and their troupe have done with it.

There is a widespread notion that war has never come to our country – except for the bombs on Darwin and the short-lived raids by a handful of Japanese mini-subs on the east coast in 1942. This production gives voice to the forgotten war that indigenous Australians still fight; land ownership, the Stolen Generation, resource stripping all provide timely pulse points. It’s a production that will stay with me for a long time.

So, if you’re a migaloo or a murri, take your bungee and your bungoo along and have a dorrie at this deadly play. You won’t regret it.

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