Mother Courage and Her Children, by Bertolt Brecht | Translated by Michael Gow | Directed by Eamon Flack

Belvoir | Belvoir Upstairs Theatre, Surry Hills, Sydney | Until 26 July

My guest and I are quick to take our seats in a quiver of anticipation. We have high expectations of this production of Mother Courage and Her Children.

And why shouldn’t we?

Written by Bertolt Brecht, one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century.

Translated by Michael Gow, quintessential playwright and director.

Starring Robin Nevin ... ’nuff said.

Arky Michael, Anthony Phelan, Alex Menglet. Belvoir.

The stage is bare except for a black corner upstage in which are stored chairs, props, a piano and other musical instruments.

The actors slowly, discreetly enter and sit in this area, chatting amongst themselves not in character but as actors. So far, so Brechtian.

The lights dim, the show begins. Nevin is the titular Mother Courage, Anna Fierline. The play is set during the 17th century’s 30 years war (which director Eamon Flack in the program notes assures us is “a model for what we are living through now”).

Courage shamelessly — nay, gleefully — profiteers from the dreadful war, dragging her garish mercantile cart from post to post. She’s accompanied by her three children, who represent Wisdom, Honesty and Silence.

What ensues is an interminably long first act that sadly misses the mark.

As to why, my guest and I had differing views during intermission.

He was of the opinion that the two nominal leads (Nevin and Phelan) were the weak links, lacking energy, dropping lines and vocally underplaying.

I disagreed, however, and I don’t think it was just because I have a hard time hearing criticism of legend-in-my-lifetime Robin Nevin (just thought I should declare that blind spot before we go any further).

As far as I was concerned, it was the translation and direction — the building blocks of the production — that let it down.

Gow’s translation seemed aimed to make it extremely accessible to modern Australian audiences. However, accessibility is not the point of Brecht. The audience is not, in fact, supposed to be comfortable or sympathetic with the characters or the context.

Similarly, Nevin’s character has a broad Australian accent and affably grouchy, if sly, personality. She wouldn’t be out of place doing the rounds with her cart in an Aussie caravan park in the height of summer.

The direction overall seemed to lack focus. In the choreography and staging of ensemble scenes, most of the actors exuberantly gave it their all but their energies dissipated in a flurry of action, prop play and sound effects.

Did Flack and Gow intend to rebel against Brecht’s theory that his plays needed to stop people from feeling anything in order to heighten their intellectual grasp of the anti-war themes and messages? Did they follow the advice of Will in Once in Royal David's City (written by Gow) and try to make us “pity the people onstage, feel for them, feel along with these people, like this old woman who’s had everything taken away from her, dragging her cart along an endless road”?

If that was the case, they should have told Nevin. Or perhaps they did and she found it difficult to reconcile Brecht’s intent and Flack’s direction.

The guest and I did, however, agree wholeheartedly on one point: the standout performers were Paula Arundell (Yvette/others) and Emele Ugavule (Kattrin).

Arundell absolutely nailed her performances of various characters. Her song (from composer Stefan Gregory) had an otherwise restless audience spellbound. Her performance was electric, and she wasn’t afraid to tear down the fourth wall and eyeball the audience. Brecht would have been proud.

Newcomer Ugavule, NIDA graduate 2014, is also someone to watch. She plays Mother Courage’s silent daughter Kattrin, but her performance spoke volumes.

We also agreed that the much shorter second act vastly improved. It had more focus and greater commitment. Unfortunately, a surprising number of people had left at interval.

But still. Applause was polite and seats emptied quickly in one of the most awkward curtain calls I’ve experienced. Everyone seemed to want to get out of the theatre, including the actors.

NOTE: To read Toni Carroll's blog, visit tonicarroll.wordpress.com

All images: Heidrun Lohr.