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Anti-war play "Mother Courage" shoots blanks

LONDON (Hollywood Reporter) - There is much to admire in the National Theater production of Tony Kushner’s translation of “Mother Courage and Her Children” by Bertolt Brecht, especially Tom Pye’s dynamic set design and Duke Special’s inspired music. But it fails to coalesce into the fierce anti-war statement it is meant to be.

Director Deborah Warner’s pacing might be at fault as the play, made up of 12 scenes in three hours, seems fragmented and some sequences drag. Aside from the poetic songs, Kushner’s language, while pleasingly free of anti-war cliches, lacks memorable lines. It was first presented in 2006 at the New York Shakespeare Festival with a series of free performances at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline.

Fiona Shaw, who has won three Olivier Awards as best actress and who plays Petunia Dursley in the Harry Potter films, has the title role of a mother of three children caught up in the 30 Years War in Poland. She brings her usual bravura strength to the part but also perhaps too much swagger in the early scenes that feature her singing, making the resourceful character something of a rock chick.

Harry Melling as her simple son, whom she calls Swiss Cheese, and Sophie Stone as her mute daughter are compelling, and Stephen Kennedy, who stepped into the role of the chaplain at the very last minute, gives a fine performance.

Brecht’s saga of a woman who seeks to not only survive but also profit from constant warfare, sacrificing her grown children in the process, is still powerful. Its bitter argument that chronic warfare suits the powers that be while causing endless suffering to everyone involved remains thoroughly pertinent.

Special, a singer-songwriter from Northern Ireland with a distinctively plaintive voice who deserves to get a major boost from his appearance in the play, sings the mordant final words that “war goes on and perseveres!”

Octogenarian U.S. writer Gore Vidal, who provides the narration for the production, underscored the point at the curtain call on first night by reminding the audience from his wheelchair, “and war goes on in Afghanistan.” When he struggled to his feet, the audience responded with a standing ovation.