The Berliner Ensemble takes Paris by storm with their production of Mère Courage et ses enfants (Mother Courage and her Children) by Bertolt Brecht. All the Brechtian elements that you hope for were present with a few contemporary surprises and some excellent portrayals of the well-known characters.
Courage’s wagon is pulled around the stage as per the stage directions; at different times throughout the piece Courage (Carmen-Maja Antoni) climbs over it, pours water from a tap connected to it and with a quick flick of its canopy, she manipulates it into her shop front or her bedroom. It is a delight to see this famous piece of set in action on the Parisian stage.
All the Brechtian devices were employed and they did not appear antiquated or over done. There was the stark light that switched so abruptly to black at the end of each scene. The direct address to audience by the actors, the indication of time passing on the surtitle boards (there were five of these positioned around the pros-arch translating the German into French). The lack of sounds effects and elaborate costumes and props all created that alienation effect and what better way to see this in action than with Brecht’s original company.
Brecht’s play is set during the Thirty Years War of the 17th century and he uses this time in history to emphasise the destruction and futility of war. Mother Courage battles to survive amongst the horrors of wartime. Mother Courage follows the armies with her travelling canteen, selling provisions and liquor to the troops. She loses both her sons in the war, and her dumb daughter Kattrin (Katia Sengfeller) is shot as she beats a drum to warn the town of Halle of an impending attack. Courage is left alone with her wagon, old but still business-like.
The interactions between Courage and her children were engrossing. The daughter, Kattrin, is ordered by Courage not to use her voice as it sounded like a barking dog. These interactions with her family were harsh yet full of love. One moving moment when Courage could not reveal, for fear of being arrested, that the corpse shown in front of her by a military officer was that of her son was very moving due to the amazing acting skills of Carmen-Maja Antoni.
A live small band consisting of a piano, saxophone, clarinet, accordion and percussion accompanied the action on the circular stage. They played at odd moments and they created sombre sounds.
The highlight of the play was to see Carmen-Maja Antoni, an accomplished theatre and television actress hugely popular within Germany. Her energy and passion for the role was exciting to watch.
Mère Courage et ses Enfants by Bertolt Brecht
Berliner Ensemble at Théâtre de la Ville
2 Place du Châtelet, Paris 4.
In German with French Surtitles.