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Posts Tagged ‘“Fiona Shaw in Mother Courage”’

Alan Bennett’s new play, “The Habit of Art” opened yesterday.

Seeing it, I was reminded of something that David Hare wrote about the reception of “Pravda”, the Fleet Street satire that he co-wrote with Howard Brenton. Before a single review had been written, before a single line had been spoken, the two authors, sitting in the audience, looked at each other in delighted disbelief because it was already apparent before the lights went down on the first night that the audience had decided to love the play. Every line was met with delight, every laugh was twice as loud, and twice as long as they had dreamed, and the ovations went on and on.

And so it was with “The Habit of Art” – a consideration of artistic identity told through an imagined encounter between Auden and Britten when both men were in their sixties.

What struck me was that Bennett had (according to the programme note, quite late in the day) framed the story as a “play within a play” – enabling any questions that had arisen in the rehearsal process of the original, unadorned play to be voiced (and answered) by the playwright, stage manager and other attendant crew who watched a “run-through” in the rehearsal room. I think it worked very well, enabling Bennett to add a consideration of the process of acting and theatre as another example of identity being accorded to those who create out of habit and determination, as well as love. Alex Jennings (as Britten – and the actor performing the role) gave a beautiful pair of performances; Frances de la Tour provided a magnificently tired, cynical, but loving portrait of a woman who had spent her life not just in the theatre, but in a role that subjugated her identity and desire to others – and Richard Griffiths (stepping in at late notice for Michael Gambon) gave a performance of tremendous charm, maybe not quite as unforgettable as his “Hector” in “The History Boys” – but tremendously affecting, funny and clear. Definitely one to see.

Seen within a month of David Hare’s “The Power of Yes” it was another striking example of a great playwright who had presented a play that used commentary, notes and glossing to tell his story and present his argument. And then, of course, there is the powerhouse performance of Fiona Shaw in Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” – the ultimate playwright glossing his own work with a commentary. All three plays are running at the National Theatre: all three are giving us a very clear view (though from three very different positions) of dramatists examining – ┬ápossibly even doubting – the traditional form of the play.

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Last night was my first visit to Deborah Warner’s production of this great, great play. It won’t be my last. I’ve booked tickets for two further performances and I cannot wait to see it again, and again, and again.

I pretend no impartiality when I discuss this great actor. I think her Hedda Gabler is the greatest performance I have ever seen on a stage, regardless of gender or material. I think her Electra and Medea were both definitive. She brings an intelligence and an immediacy to everything she does, and she is totally in control of the fact of her medium. There are few others (Judi Dench, Daniel Day-Lewis, Antony Hopkins) whom I think bear comparison (as stage actors) – so I was always going to like this (unless it turned out to be a hideous reminder of that cheek-burning awfulness “The Powerbook”, the hysterical, indulgent, unimaginative, DOA torpor of which is with me still).

Was it good “Brecht”? I don’t know – but then part of the joy of any Shaw/Warner (the brilliant Deborah Warner was watching her own production on the night I went, as she was when Me As A Protestant went – commendable commitment to the theatre as an ever-changing art form) is their lack of reverence for how a play “should be done”. “Hedda Gabler” should be a stately progress through the defiant disenchantment of a strong woman who chooses death before dishonour – but they reinvented it as a frenzied run through the last days of a woman who was cowardly and terrified of how she had lost control of her life. “Medea” should be a horrifying revenge of how an older woman exacts revenge on her former husband through the calculated slaughter of their children – but they reinvented it as the story of what happens when passion runs out between two people, where the children are collateral damage. “The Waste Land” should be read…. And so it goes on.

What I know is that last night was a boisterous, fresh and vital production of a play that I would have believed had been written this year. There was no “reverence” (but nor was there – nor is there ever – any disrespect), no sense of “inherited best practice” or anything that felt accepted, rather than felt. Absolutely fresh-minted and lively as hell. Having the songs performed by Duke Special and his band was a great touch: this Weimaresque pixie and his band created a great score of new songs, orchestrated somewhere between 1930s nightclub, gypsies’ wedding and rock concert, and the eponymous leader rightly shared a final curtain call with Shaw.

And she was astounding: a performance of enormous energy, commitment and intensity. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the fake smile she mustered to convince the soldiers that the body in front of her was not that of her son – and I think the great triumph of the performance was the decision to stress the Mother in “Mother Courage” (too often have I seen a defiant, hip-swinging roaring girl who “happens to have children”). These were some of the most credible family relationships on a stage I have ever seen (the relationship between Swiss Cheese and Katrin was peerlessly executed; and Courage’s love for the daughter she claimed to see as ordinary was palpable). That iconic scene (as memorable as Vladimir and Estragon standing still, not going, if not more so) when Courage strapped herself to the cart and started to pull it forward made my heart pound: it captured all the nebulousness of the description of the stage direction. Was it defiance? Was it the indomitable human spirit? Was it despair? Was it clinging to all she had? It could have been any one of those – and the reason I feel so excited to go again, is that I know the next time that I see it, it will be something entirely new.

When Fiona Shaw came forward (after prolonged insistence) for her final call, and (it transpired, standing ovation) from the audience, it was her absolute due. A towering performance in a fire-cracker of a production. If you can get to see it, do.

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