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“That which is not known, has not yet emerged.”
Viola Spolin

A simple sentence that has taken me years to get my head around.

“Whenever anyone says, ‘Mother Courage is essentially X’ it is equally reasonable for someone to retort: ‘Mother Courage is essentially the exact opposite of X.’”
Eric Bentley


This piece may be a bit technical and a little in-sidey. So stand forewarned. It’s about a theatre question that has been on my mind a long time. The answer to which is just beginning to take shape. Here goes.

It is often said that King Lear is Shakespeare’s great play and that Mother Courage is Brecht’s. But to quote Hamlet, this “is a custom more honor’d in the breach than in the observance.” as it seems to be borne out in performance. I’ve seen I don’t know how many Lears over the past fifty years, but only one that lived up to the billing. Perhaps you saw it too. It was broadcast in movie theatres as one of the National Theatre Live offerings. Simon Russell Beale was the Lear. Barbara and I saw it live in London in the summer of 2015 with tickets we had purchased at the last minute. We ran down the aisle to our seats just as the lights were dimming. Three hours later they came back up and we ran back to the box office. The same man who sold us the tickets was still on duty.

“Was something wrong with the seats?” he asked with the sense of practiced and professional concern that the English do so well.

“No, no, not at all. Can we get tickets again for tomorrow afternoon?”

He was rewarded with two in the second row center. We liked it even better the second time around. Sam Mendes’ production was everything the theatre holds out as a promise but, it seems, only fulfills often enough to keep you coming back for more, daring you to sit through nine evenings of frustrating boredom in chase of that one exquisite high. My god it was good. And my favorite small detail? You could actually tell the Goneril and the Regan apart-two very different human beings rather than one set of evil twins.

Over the years I’ve had similar luck with Mother Courage, only two live versions have made my heart sing: the intimate, somewhat post-modern production we saw at the Berliner Ensemble on our first trip to Berlin in 2009 with its final devastating image of Carmen-Maja Antoni’s Courage trudging on alone through the snow, and, more recently, a stunning production at the Bergtheater in Vienna. I believe it’s still in the repertory and if you are ever able to see it, please, please do. This too was a production that succeeded on every level, showing the benefit of having the finest actors in Europe, the lengthy rehearsal periods that these theatres allow and a production budget that god himself would have wished for his theatre in heaven, but couldn’t have afforded. But its opulence never called attention to itself. It was always necessary to the whole effect, always to quote Polonius this time, “rich, not gaudy.’

Now back to the question that has been on my mind for so many years: why do these two great plays, even when produced by the fine theaters with the fine actors in the title roles so often just lie there on the stage.

Simple answer: they’re great plays, and they are also incredibly difficult. and all but impossible to pull off with the limitations of time, and money and the lack of permanent companies in the US and even in Britain.

But there is also one other thing, and this is the thought that is just emerging about how these plays work. It’s an ingredient found in all of the productions that I have mentioned both the Shakespeares and the Brechts. These plays need to be acted in a way that is still often quite foreign to us over here on this side of the Atlantic. And It all has to do with that much misunderstood word: “alienation,” or as Brecht called it, the “V effect,” short for “Verfrensungseffekt.” Literally, to make the familiar strange.

Perhaps replacing the “V Effect” with “the interruption effect” would be a much more productive way of getting us to understand how these particular productions make their magic. The “Interruptions” include playing in a variety of performance styles, rapidly shifting gears between them-one moment played with an almost cinematic simplicity and reality, and the next the actor stepping out of the play completely to confer directly with the audience (this is the soliloquy approach taken by many British actors over the last few years and is used to perfection by people like, Beale and Rory Kinnear (you may have seen him in the mini-series Years and Years. You must watch this series!!!) They know how to step in and out of the play and do it without missing a step and are able to do so even when the switches are between two moments of great intensity and emotional commitment. That is an example of what produces the V-effect. It’s not the commonly held notion that “alienation” means the actor standing outside of the role for the evening and commenting intellectually without engaging or entangling with the words being said or the other actors,

The “Alienation effect” is there to keep us spinning back and forth, to keep us off balance, and to drop our guard-not not put us to sleep through an academic exercise.

I finished the adaptation of Mother Courage on Saturday, read it with a small group of old friends Sunday night, just to hear the words read aloud. Some were actors, some not, but what a great job everyone did

I’m really excited about where we are right now. A lot that was not known about this play, its traps and hidden treasures, is beginning to emerge. Some of it I’ve shared with you today, because, in my own, obsessive way, that is what is on my mind.

We’re starting work with a larger group in about a week, cozying up to the text, its meaning and how to perform it with the luxury of time that only the strange, unwanted isolation of this world we are currently inhabiting permits us. When life gives you lemons…make a radio show. Who knows?


Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

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