Tag Archive | "Mother Courage and Her Children"

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Blog: The National Theatre Archives

Posted on 02 October 2013 by Stanley Walton


If you have some form of interest in theatre, whether you’re actively involved in making it or a spectator, then it is likely you’ve often wished to see a past production you missed for some reason. Now imagine for a moment there were a place one could visit where they have recordings of past National Theatre productions, their respective programmes, production notes and the entire prompt script for productions spanning decades. What if this place were open to anyone by appointment? It exists. It’s the National Theatre Archive.

Located next door to the Old Vic theatre by Waterloo station in London sits the National Theatre Studio, a building which houses a tiny archive, a veritable mine of past production knowledge. You arrange your appointment by way of a form on their website. All you need supply is your area of interest and which productions you’d like to have a look at. You’ll be given a choice of times which you then confirm. When you arrive you tell reception you’re there to visit the archive, you sign in and get taken to the second floor. The room you are shown to is an L shape. There are large iMacs on several desks in a row alongside the window and a huge table. You’re then shown which desk you will be using; it will have large grey cardboard folders for each production you’ve asked to look at that contain all manner of notes. You’re then left to watch, if possible, the production on the computer and make whatever notes you require. Of course you’re not allowed to take any photographs and photocopying has to be done on site, costing 20p per page.

When I last visited I spent a day there. Arriving early in the morning I started my day by looking at Danny Boyle’s 2011 production of Frankenstein. There were three large folders of production notes, set designs and even director’s notes leading up to the opening night. The amount of detail preserved is fantastic, from costume measurements to how they managed who would play who if certain cast members were ill. I was then able to watch both versions of the production, the lead actors playing Dr. Frankenstein and the creature in tandem, making it easy to take notes on the differences and similarities. Being able to mark the subtleties in their performances was of particular interest to me both as an actor and director, and would have been extremely difficult without the archive.

I then spent the rest of the day watching portions of Nicholas Hytner’s Hamlet, Deborah Warner’s Mother Courage and her Children and Katie Mitchell’s …some trace of her. The information included with …some trace of her was amazing: storyboards, screen shots and the original text. Of course productions that had a NT Live! screening have better quality recordings, though the 2009 recording of Mother Courage was from a camera at the back of the auditorium, and everything could be seen and heard perfectly well. Also available are recordings of most NT Platform events.  A space where you can immerse yourself in a past production to absorb additional knowledge is invaluable to any theatre practitioner and I urge you to go.

Photo by Flickr user Dimitry B under a Creative Commons licence.


Stanley Walton

Stanley Walton is a young director and producer who runs a theatre company called Irresponsible Decorators. He can be found at @brownhairedboy, and his theatre company can be found at @I_Decorators or

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Review: Mother Courage and her Children

Posted on 17 October 2012 by Alice Longhurst

“War is just business”, even in the twenty-first century. As Blackeyed Theatre brings Brecht’s anti-war play forward some 400 years, it’s obvious that his challenges are just as relevant today as ever. The Second World War may no longer loom over us, but we have our own evils to tackle; the various Middle Eastern conflicts of the past decade or so are saturated with human rights abuses, the deaths of uncountable innocents, and the profits gathered by arms dealers, re-construction companies, security firms and the financial institutions (and even universities) which invest in such businesses.

There’s no sign of the iconic canvas-covered wagon, replaced instead by a metal truck with serving hatches, while reflective discomfort is achieved with projections of scene summaries and iPod-style playlists, guitars which are pointed as guns, and brash, upbeat songs which never allow us to forget that this is merely acting. The small cast slip between roles with ease, using simple clothing changes as in Georgina Hall’s sublime transformation from harsh-accented solider to simple Kattrin or sassy prostitute Yvette with the striking red leopard-print heels.

Janet Greaves takes on the title role as the undoubted queen of the production. Her Mother Courage is a very credible rough Londoner of a matriarch, the kind of woman that is probably to be found on most council estates in the country: a single mother fiercely guarding her brood from the dangers of the world. JJ Henry gives an excellent performance as the hapless Chaplain, while Jacob Addley’s instant role change between male and female Irish peasant is hilarious.

Blackeyed Theatre’s production is charmingly comical, an impression which unsettles and contrasts with the tragedy of the devastation we witness. The company succeed in forcing the audience to reflect abstractly on this mish mash of a play, casting our eyes on our own reality, our own struggles and conflicts, in a manner Brecht himself would have approved of.

Mother Courage and Her Children was at the Greenwich Theatre until Saturday 13 of October and will tour various theatres in the UK including the Lakeside Arts Centre in Nottingham, the Civic Theatre in Chelmsford and the Guidhall Theatre in Derby. For more information, visit the Blackeyed Theatre website.

Alice Longhurst

Alice Longhurst

Alice studies Liberal Arts at Kings College London with a focus on literature, history and Spanish. She has notions of entering the vicious world of journalism when her heady university days are over, although she would much rather prefer to find a way to make ends meet as an arts critic and writer of fiction.

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Desire under the Elms at the Lyric Hammersmith

Posted on 08 October 2012 by Sarah Williams

Since graduating from RADA three years ago, Morgan Watkins hasn’t exactly opted for light relief when it comes to the plays he has performed in. From Deborah Warner’s production of Mother Courage and Her Children at the National in 2009, to Sean Holmes’s revival of Saved at the Lyric Hammersmith last October, tragic themes have become his daily bread. As he returns to the Lyric to play Eben Cabot in Desire under the Elms – arguably his most challenging theatrical role to date – the themes of Eugene O’Neill’s classic play are no less morose. Like Saved, it even features its share of infanticide.

So what is it about the theatrical dark that keeps drawing the young actor in? “I don’t think it’s particularly a preference I have,” Watkins explains. “It’s just something I seem to end up doing – maybe because I’m not afraid of it. But I do like plays and films that explore the darker issues in life: the more perverse and stranger things. What O’Neill’s done in the play is he’s given these quite simple people in rural America in 1850 this incredibly tragic set of circumstances and let it burn. It’s not a play about society as such, it’s a play about the human psyche. I thought it was fantastic, an amazing piece of writing, and Eben was a fascinating character to explore. He’s got a really volatile way of thinking about things and he can literally flip in a space of five seconds from one opinion to the opposite. He is definitely a very troubled, trapped man.”

In O’Neill’s play, which resituates Greek tragedy in the rural New England of the late nineteenth century, Eben is the youngest son of Ephraim Cabot, a brutal and exacting man who has for years repressed his family. “Eben was 15 when his mother died,” Watkins tells me. “After she died, he had to take over the mother’s role in the house and he began to realise what she’d been through. Eben is a thinker, a sensitive soul. He couldn’t believe the way in which they’d all stood by and let his father slave her to death. So he takes it upon himself to avenge his mother’s death in some way – and he’s kind of working that out as the play starts.” It’s at this point that Eben’s elderly father [Finbar Lynch] suddenly arrives home with a new wife and, as Watkins juicily puts it, “everything goes tits up”.

“It’s a complete shock because he’s 75-years-old: it’s the last thing that they expected”. Less expected still, however, is the adulterous relationship which develops between Eben and his father’s bride, Abbie [Denise Gough]. “I think at first there’s a huge mutual attraction between them: she’s physically very attractive to him, and vice versa. And Eben hasn’t got much experience of women: even though he’s 25, he’s quite a repressed character. He can’t just go to a nightclub and see loads of girls in the way that I might be able to today. But I do think Abbie is the driving force at first.”

Strongly attracted to Eben, Abbie tries to seduce her stepson, but is initially refused. He resists Abbie “because she is counter-intuitive to what he wants to achieve, which is to regain his mother’s farm and put his mother’s spirit to rest.” However, Eben’s reluctance is short-lived. “Later in the play you see that change, and they completely connect at one point.”

Creating a convincing onstage relationship was an intense but oddly uncomplicated process for Watkins and his co-star Denise Gough. “Everyone who has watched the runs has said how believable it is – how believable the feelings are between us. But it’s just that we’ve been committing to the scenes and discussing and working on them. We haven’t done any exercises to get close to each other or anything. I think we’re both quite honest actors, me and Denise. And I think when you both just play the scenes and believe in the scenes and the situation, it just happens.”

But with such extremes on stage – adultery, infanticide and these overpowering echoes of Greek tragedy – how do the performers manage to preserve the realism? “It’s actually quite tough because the themes are so huge. Everything is so dramatic, there’s so much emotion and the stakes are so high. You’ve just got to tell the story at the same time and in fact, in life, in the most tragic circumstances, we don’t always behave epically. There’s a lot of logic and problem-solving as opposed to just dwelling on problems. So I personally try to pick it apart and play the scenes for what they are. Even if the stakes are really high and there’s something really dramatic going on, you’ve got to play it with accuracy and not overdo it. That’s the key. It’s just imagination and commitment, acting, and I think if you put yourself in that situation and believe what is happening then it organically will be what it should be.”

This straightforward commitment to the text is also characteristic of Sean Holmes’s style as a director, and is why Watkins so enjoys working with him. “He’s just very simple, Sean, he’s straight to the point. Some people in theatre and in acting think that we’re doing some sort of sacred, epic thing. And in some ways when it’s great it is kind of like that. But Sean is not the type of guy to think that at all – he just gets in the room and gets on with it. He treats everyone with equal respect, as if you’re just normal. That’s what I find very appealing about working with him, and I find it easy to listen to and respect everything he says. He just picks the play apart: we have a read and we start attacking the text and discussing it.”

With an appreciation for this fairly no-nonsense approach to the job, perhaps it’s no wonder that Watkins is gradually making his mark on the silver and small screen as well as the stage. As he treads the boards at the Lyric, his face will also be appearing on TVs across the country as a regular on the second series of the BBC’s iconic drama, The Hour. So as he becomes more of a household name, I asked him whether he still plans to keep his feet firmly on the stage: “I’m up for doing as much as I can of anything,” he says, “as long as it’s good writing and a good character and good drama for people to watch and enjoy. I do love theatre: I love rehearsing every day, the sort of hands-on side to theatre and the fact that it’s constant. But I also love the medium of film and television – it’s wonderful in its own right. I just want to do great drama really, wherever that is: as long as it’s bloody good.”

Desire under the Elms previews at the Lyric Hammersmith on Wednesday 3 October and plays until Saturday 10 November 2012. For tickets and more information, visit

Image credit: Morgan Watkins as Eben Cabot and Denise Gough as Abbie Putnam by Keith Pattison

Sarah Williams

Sarah Williams

Sarah has an MA in theatre from RADA and King's College London and has written for publications including A Younger Theatre and The Guardian.

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Review: Mother Courage and Her Children

Posted on 02 November 2009 by A Younger Theatre

Mother Courage and Her Children

Mother Courage and Her Children

Mother Courage and Her Children has been built into my nervous system since a young age. Programmed and modified in vigorous lessons at GCSE’s, A Level and Degree level of teaching. Therefore I think it’s fair to say that it was about time that I actually went and saw the Brecht production for myself. As you can imagine, I hold the play quite dear to my heart, and actually rather like the themes that run through it. Nothing beats an epic war spread over many years, and the loss of people to that war. Judging from several reviews of the show already it would appear not everyone likes an epic proportion of a play, and quite a few people were lost to the tragic tale.

Let me set the scene, the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre, a vast stage exposed to the audience, blasts of sound effects and sound scopes echo around the auditorium. Stage managers, actors, scenery, and props are littered everywhere and anywhere. This is the start of a war, and Mother Courage the protagonist of Brechts play leads her cart of war supplies across what we know now as Europe with her three children, from three different fathers. This opening scene is quite dramatic, explosions going off, lights whirling beams around the stage, and Fiona Shaw standing on top of her cart singing an almighty song of war.

The production is going to epic, I could just tell, but the real question is more, did it live up to the epic proportions of the play that Brecht once wrote?

Mother Courage
Fiona Shaw as Mother Courage

What I admire about Deborah Warner’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s, Mother Courage and Her Children, is how true she sticks to some of the Brechtian methods of alienation and distancing of the audiences, at no point is there a cause for emotion when Brecht is around. Huge banners and voice overs announce the start of new scenes and what happens within. “…her honest son dies” – This is what I love about Brecht, the fact you are told beforehand what to expect, and thus when it happens you are absent minded about any form of emotion.

Warner’s direction of Mother Courage for me stays true to the ways of Brecht, even down to the bursting of songs, which are delightfully played by Duke Special and band. Perhaps it’s all a bit theatrical, with the use of hand held microphones, but then once again it reminds us that we’re just watching a show, and as Brecht said: “I don’t want the audience to come into the theatre and hang their minds up with their hats”, or something close to that nonetheless.

Warner has brought the production up to speed rather (despite the three hour running time) with a contemporary feel to the production. It’s something about the staging, the scenery that is erected to symbolise but to not actually fulfill. It’s in the costumes and props, and maybe down to the swearing that is littered in Tony Kushner’s new translation.

Despite all of this, I can’t help feel that there is something missing from Mother Courage and Her Children, it lacks a heart, a keystone that completes the show. It’s as if it is missing a limb that it can’t function without. Don’t get me wrong, there is much to praise in this slightly risky production for the National Theatre, but after 3 hours I wanted more. I wanted full on explosions and blood and guts. I wanted to see the despair of Mother Courage as she loses her last child.

I just wanted more.

From a production with such epic proportions, you would have thought Warner would have pushed the piece beyond the comforts of ‘let’s keep this nice for the audience’.  Alas, that wasn’t the case.

Mother Courage2
Mother Courage and her Daughter

Fiona Shaw plays the lead here, and she does so with compelling conviction. She is rugged, and honest, witty and smart. I actually rather liked her singing, compared with some of the comments I’ve read! Personally I think she makes a fine leading lady and I can’t help but to feel that the pressure was on for her to push this piece constantly forward as she is rarely off the stage during the show. However she does so commendably, and I’d actually rather like to see her in future shows, she is certainly one to watch.

Another person to shine in this production comes from the slightly stupid and forgotten character of Swiss Cheese, played beautifully by Harry Melling. He manages to capture everything possible about this character, from movement, voice and presence. At times I found myself caught in his performance more than I did of Fiona Shaw.. and that’s something!

A note on the length of the production. It has been discussed at length at how long this production of Mother Courage and Her Children is. Yet I approve of the running time, it easily reflects that of the context of the play, being set over a war that lasts years upon years. A war that never truly ends. The length of the production reflects that of the length of the lives of the characters living through a war that never ends.

My advice to people would be to check out the performance, it’s entertaining, fresh and really bold, just don’t expect to be completely drawn into the action and leave bowled over by the magic of theatre, because if anything, Brecht is far from making theatre like this.

A bold and challenging piece that brings the light out of a classic Brecht play.

Mother Courage and Her Children is playing in the Olivier Theatre of the National Theatre until 08 December 2009. Check the National Theatre website for details

A Younger Theatre

A Younger Theatre

A Younger Theatre (AYT) is a platform for young people to express their views on theatre and performance. The site is maintained, edited and published by under 26 year olds who all have a passion for theatre.

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