War as a leveler (nd-aktuell.de)

It doesn’t matter who plays who here: “Mother Courage and Her Children” at the Maxim Gorki Theater Berlin

Photo: Ute Langkafel MAIFOTO

After many years, Berlin has once again got “Mother Courage”. The Brecht play is relatively rarely included in the repertoire. While »The Threepenny Opera« with all the hits of Kurt Weill reliably creates a good atmosphere and packed halls everywhere, one is more careful with this »Chronicle of the Thirty Years’ War«. It may also be because a certain “Courage” production has had great impact to this day: The legendary performance with Helene Weigel in the lead role, developed by Bertolt Brecht himself and Erich Engel.

A tip for those interested: The Berliner Ensemble has published a recording of the piece on its YouTube channel. It appeared at the Deutsches Theater in 1949, then moved to the Haus am Schiffbauerdamm and, as decreed by Brecht, became the template for all further productions in the years to come. Even today, the success of this production justifies a certain reluctance to rework the play.

Director Oliver Frljić also refers to her, at the end of the premiere at Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater he has Helene Weigel’s voice recorded. As courage, she sings the lullaby for her dead daughter Kattrin: “Eia popeia, what rustles in the straw”. Otherwise, there is not much left of Brecht, he is lost in the turmoil of the battle. And that, even though a large part of the action takes place: how the sutler Anna Fierling travels through Poland and Germany in a Finnish regiment, how she tries to make money from the war, how she loses her three children one after the other. Everything is there, but at the same time completely unrecognizable and inaudible.

Frljić lets his ensemble rattle, rush and scream through the plot in an hour and a half, and the individual actresses keep switching roles unexpectedly. If you don’t know the play, you’re lost here. “Peace, it’s just sloppy, only war brings order,” said a sergeant at the very beginning, and one is tempted to take the following as proof to the contrary. For the war here is a great equalizer, in whose power it is more or less immaterial who plays what role, who speaks, who dies now or a little later, who is male and who is female.

An all-female ensemble throws phrases and roles at one another. They are Maryam Abu Khaled, Yanina Cerón, Lea Draeger, Kenda Hmeidan, Abak Safaei-Rad and Çiğdem Teke. At first one thinks that the production could focus on the lives of women in war, their danger and their suffering, possibly committing to a feminist foreign or even defense policy, but traces of this can only be seen in two scenes. In one, Courage’s daughter Kattrin returns defiled from an errand. In the original she was disfigured by a blow, here she is presented with spread legs as a rape victim.

In another scene, players build a catwalk of coffins and walk down it with mutilated arms and legs. The text then continues. These scenes aren’t motivated by a larger idea, they’re just ideas. It actually doesn’t have much of an effect that only women are on stage here.

And why would he? It has long been common for women to play male roles and vice versa. That alone is no longer enough to formulate a feminist statement, at least in the theater metropolis of Berlin. Especially not in this play, since there is a woman at the center anyway. So why this setting? Probably for the simple reason that everything can be told a little faster with it. When men and women stand side by side on stage, the actors have to deal with possible sexual connotations or power imbalances that the audience consciously or involuntarily assumes. The all-female ensemble can save itself the work of dealing with these interpretations, amplifying them or undermining them.

Oliver Frljić has removed all obstacles from the play, now they waltz through it with egalitarian energy. They cannot be stopped. Dozens of puppets of corpses pave the way, carrying them away, stacking them on pedestals, throwing them at each other, cheering them on and warming their hands over the flames. Violence is presented this evening by extremely clumsy means. All the cleverness that Brecht’s play would have to say about the war must be dispensed with here. Only the surface remains. For Oliver Frljić, who recently became artistic co-director of the theater, it is a bad start to his new job. One could almost wish that the infamous Brecht heirs had prevented this uninspired staging. You would rather have no one in the city than such “courage”.

Next performances: 12., 30.10. and 14.11.

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