Mercenary or hero?

Stephen Carleton: QTC, Mother Courage and Her Children

David Page, Ursula Yovich, Mother Courage and Her Children, QTC

David Page, Ursula Yovich, Mother Courage and Her Children, QTC

David Page, Ursula Yovich, Mother Courage and Her Children, QTC

During a month in which The Australian’s Rosemary Neill instigated a media skirmish centring on the proliferation of adaptations of canonical European texts on the nation’s mainstages, Queensland Theatre Company premiered an all-Indigenous production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Avoiding the brouhaha surrounding the work of ‘auteur directors’ in Neill’s articles, where the original writer’s name disappears from the playbill altogether, Queensland Theatre Company was very careful to name this as Brecht’s play, and Paula Nazarski and Wesley Enoch its translators.

As a translation (into contemporary Aboriginal English, utilising south-east Queensland slang and lingo), the script gleams. It is a crisp and aggressive kriol metamorphosis of Brecht’s text in which language goes a long way to establishing mise en scène; it is also wickedly humorous and had the substantial number of Indigenous opening night audience members responding with emphatic approval. Mother Courage hauls her wagon—a converted (was it a Holden?) ute—around a sparse outback stage, traversing mining camps and the occasional Centrelink office. Christina Smith’s set design is beautifully evocative of the Australian land (and office) scape. Ben Hughes’ compelling lighting designs give us the red dirt and the starry nights, while Smith’s corrugated iron draping gives us the outback, or the simple stunning line of lurid green plastic chairs the unemployment office.

Enoch, who also directed the play, explains its transposition to a slightly futuristic (Mad Max-esque) regional Australia: “[Brecht] uses the 30 years war that swept Europe in the 17th century to discuss the rise of National Socialism in pre-war Germany. In this production we use Brecht’s characters and situations to suggest the relationship between First Nations Peoples and mining…asking ourselves what is the ‘war’ for contemporary Aboriginal people, and we came upon the idea that the greatest issue of contention for us is—do we engage in mining or not?” (Director’s Note, program). The production is more than a translation, then—it’s an adaptation of Brecht’s text from one specific cultural and political context to another, and it is in this yoking of the text to the Aboriginal/Mining question that I’m not convinced the piece has quite landed yet.

Ursula Yovich leads a well-directed, capable and confident cast. Her astute, grounded performance is a wonderful achievement, commandeering as it does the difficult emotional arc of this big didactic play. During the final John Rodgers’ bluesy musical numbers (the Bossman reprieve) the play’s thesis is (I would argue belatedly) articulated:

There’s luck and there’s skills
When a war drags on you have nothing to rely on but your wits
This war could keep going on for 225 years more
And we mob would still not get anything more than we have now
They take what they want and you have to find a way to survive.
I say take their money and live a life that’s full.
Even if they steal your wages, and take away your kids and take away your Land
You gotta keep dreaming it’s gonna get better.

I have always read Courage as a mercenary who has, at the end of the day, sacrificed principle for the dollar. She is self-professedly pro-war. She is financially dependent upon it and there is not much honour in that reliance. Here Nazarski and Enoch seem to be moulding her into a hero who is emblematic of the First Nations People’s survival and endurance. They are having it both ways, in a sense, and this revelation of her as both pragmatist/mercenary and idealist/champion felt a bit too neat or ad hoc—at odds with her depiction elsewhere in the text. That dramaturgical criticism aside, this is an ambitious production that largely succeeds and will rightly be studied on secondary schools’ drama curricula for years to come.

QTC, Mother Courage and Her Children, writer Bertolt Brecht, translation Wesley Enoch and Paula Nazarski, director Wesley Enoch. QTC, QPAC 25 May-16 June 2013

RealTime issue #116 Aug-Sept 2013 pg. 44

© Stephen Carleton; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

19 August 2013