Journey’s End, Mother Courage, Somersaults

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on JOURNEY”S END at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh; MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN at Paisley Arts Centre; and SOMERSAULTS at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for Scotsman Arts, 17.3.11
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JOURNEY”S END 4 stars ****
MOTHER COURAGE 3 stars ***
SOMERSAULTS 3 stars ***

WAR: IT MAY BE GOOD for absolutely nothing, but it often seems as though our species can’t live without it, as an outlet for aggression, and an expression of collective identity. So it’s both salutary and sobering, in this age of new and unpredictable conflicts, to find Scottish theatre playing host, this week, to two of the most powerful anti-war plays ever written; dramas that take us to the bleak heart of violent conflict, with its shocking negation of life, fertility and hope.

R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End, first seen in London in 1928, is the first and perhaps the greatest of English dramas inspired by the horror of the First World War; a play that both reflects the Boys’ Own Paper image of British military heroism, and goes beyond it, into a searingly truthful account of the horror of front-line warfare in the last months of the conflict. In a dug-out on the western front, a group of five officers wait for one of the last great German offensives of the war. They are led by Captain Stanhope, once a gilded public schoolboy, now an adored battle-scarred 22-year-old veteran, surviving only on fierce nervous rages, and industrial quantities of whisky. Around him sit kindly middle-aged Osborne, a schoolmaster turned soldier; the down-to-earth fat man Trotter; the quivering nervous wreck Hibbert; and young Raleigh, once an admiring younger schoolfriend of Stanhope’s, and now set for some tough lessons in how the horror of war changes everyone.

The basic situation of Sherriff’s play is so flawlessly dramatic, and the characters so beatifully drawn, that it would make a gripping story under any circumstances; but what gives this play its enduring power is the extraordinary, vivid poetry of the text, which ranges effortlessly from the running domestic comedy of the dugout’s eating arrangements – masterminded by the stoical cook-orderly, Mason – to the passionate, uniquely intense sense of living in the moment and seeing to the heart of things that pervades both Stanhope and Raleigh’s descriptions of the battlefield. David Grindley’s flawless touring production captures every nuance of this magnificent text, offering a series of completely gripping performances from James Norton as Stanhope, Dominic Mafham as Osborne, Christian Patterson as Trotter, and Graham Butler as Raleigh; with a final barrage of sound, and stunning curtain-call, that leave us in no doubt about their fate, or about the reasons why so many pledged that this would be the war to end all wars.

Written at the outbreak of the Second World War, Bertolt Brecht’s mighty masterpiece Mother Courage And Her Children is famously set three centuries back, in the Thirty Years War that ravaged Europe from 1618 to 1648; but its aim – precisely captured in its title – is to show that if its heroine is a practical woman of business, making her living from war by running a mobile canteen from her famous cart, then it’s also the same war that devours her three children, one by one. Morven Gregor’s new touring production for the mixed-ability company Birds Of Paradise – based on Lee Hall’s recent English version of the text, which is projected in surtitles behind the action – sometimes seems almost overwhelmed by the scope and sophistication of this play, by its hard-nosed politics, its raging songs, its radical mix of low comedy and pure tragedy; the style is not sharply Brechtian enough, and the pace is often vague and uncertain.

It has, though, some formidable assets, in fine performances from Ashley Smith as Mother Courage’s wordless daughter, Gary Robson as Courage’s admirer the Cook, and – above all – from the great Alison Peebles, as a Mother Courage who cannot walk without a stick, but whose iron will to survive remains unquenched. In terms of the politics of war, Brecht makes a conclusive case that even those who profit by it will pay too high a price. And in terms of mixed-ability theatre, this is a show which simply takes for granted that damage and disability are part of the human landscape; whether we lose our capacities at birth, or just have our legs blown off, in some nameless battle.

There’s no war going on in Iain Finlay MacLeod’s Somersaults, the last play in the current National Theatre of Scotland Reveal season of new work; but there is a profound struggle for the survival of a language that has been almost overwhelmed by history. In MacLeod’s short 50-minute play – directed with flair by the NTS’s Vicky Featherstone – James is a wealthy banker in London, with a beautiful wife and a dream lifestyle. Back in Lewis, though, his father is dying; and when the financial crash strips him of his wealth, he is forced to reasses how much he cares about his past, and about the slow disappearance of his mother tongue, the language of his childhood.

In the end, Somersaults seems more like a series of sketches for a play about these issues than the play itself; it features five strong characters – including a strange, eerie bailiff-figure, beautifully played by John Ramage – as well as some fine design and lighting by Kai Fischer, a memorable performance from Angus Peter Campbell as James’s father, and a rousing theoretical debate on the issues raised, which makes up the last ten minutes of the action. Conventionally speaking, the energy of that debate should be within the playwriting, rather than served as a side-dish. But challenging convention is part of what the Reveal season seeks to do; and Somersaults certainly offers a powerful theatrical snapshot of the position of Gaelic in our society now, written in both Gaelic and English, and all the clearer – and more beautiful – for that.

Journey’s End at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until Saturday, and in Glasgow and Aberdeen in September. Mother Courage on tour, and at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 30 March-2 April. Somersaults at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until Saturday, at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, 23-26 March, and on tour to Ullapool and Stornoway.

ENDS ENDS

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