Mother Courage image by Anthony Luvera
From the moment Mother Courage explodes on the stage in a dazzling light display - music escorting her every strut, bellowing a song that could come straight from a Nick Cave songbook - the audience sits up and takes notice. But at more than three hours long, sheer spectacle wears thin in this fascinating but flawed revival of Bertolt Brecht's play.
The wartime setting is sixteenth-century Germany, but Mother Courage & Her Children was inspired by the start of the Second World War. Under Deborah Warner's direction, time zones are similarly merged. Props and costumes have a contemporary twist. Mother Courage dresses in floaty fabric with cut-off denim and leather: think peasant meets rock chick. These anachronisms give the play universality: if it seems relevant, that's just because there is always war somewhere.
A couple of memorable scenes match the horror of this message, but much feels a little removed, despite a fast, frenetic style and fresh translation by Tony Kushner. Fiona Shaw's Mother Courage veers the wrong side of comic, full of ticks and slapdash. She never seems "strong" enough to portray the contradictions of a character that prospers from the carnage, but cannot shake her maternal instinct.
Warner also sticks faithfully to Brecht's "epic theatre" - essentially, that theatre should flaunt its artifice and stir the intellect, not the heart. Some sound effects come from a man with a microphone. Technicians and stagehands dash across the stage. And every scene has a song to disconcert you.
The original score is sung and composed by Duke Special - a Boy George/Gary Numan figure who looms over the action like a catalyst for the characters' inner thoughts and dreams. His lyrics hint at the despair of the pastor. A bawdy, one-dimensional prostitute becomes someone who has loved and lost and yearned.
It may not be what Brecht would have wanted, but these songs offer an emotional connection and are the best thing in a play that is sometimes more style than substance.
Mother Courage & Her Children is playing at the National Theatre until 8 December.