Laila al Qadhi as the title character in Mother Courage, adapted and directed by Alison Shan Price for the Kuwait National Council for Culture Arts and Letters. Poster design: Sarah al Khabbaz. Courtesy of One World Actors Centre.
Articles, Reviews, Volume 14

Performance Review: Brecht’s Mother Courage adapted and directed by Alison Shan Price

MOTHER COURAGE. By Bertolt Brecht. Adapted and directed by Alison Shan Price for the Kuwait National Council for Culture Arts and Letters (NCCAL). Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah and One World Actors Centre at Yarmouk Cultural Center, Kuwait. March 11, 2023.

Reviewed by Hassan Hajiyah
Independent Researcher, Kuwait

The protagonist of Brecht’s epic play Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder—in English, Mother Courage and Her Children—is a traveling merchant who relies on war to sell her goods, not realizing that the very thing she profits from will ultimately end up taking away the most precious thing she has, her three children. In Alison Shan Price’s English-language adaptation, staged in Kuwait in March under the auspices of the National Council for Culture Arts and Letters (NCCAL), Brecht’s reflections on the destructive nature of war and the futility of seeking to profit from it are both universally relatable and specifically relevant to Kuwait, with its history of invasion and resistance and its continuing reliance on military conscription. Yet this production only partially succeeded in connecting Brecht’s insights to the local context.

Brecht’s play is set in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), triggered by the Christian reformation of Martin Luther: Christians against Christians, Catholics and Protestants at each other’s throats. The play chronicles the loss of Mother Courage’s children: her son, the honest Swiss Cheese, is the first to die after taking responsibility for hiding a cashbox from soldiers. Her other son Eilif is conscripted into the army by The Recruiter; mesmerised by the militaristic lifestyle, he begins to attack peasants to feed his men, and boasts about “hacking them to pieces” with his sword, until soldiers chain him up and march him offstage to his execution. Lastly, their mute and disfigured sister Kattrin starts drumming in the middle of the night to warn the townspeople of an impending attack; she defies the soldiers who repeatedly ask her to stop, until she is shot dead.

In Price’s adaptation, entitled simply Mother Courage, the beautiful costumes and the title character’s iconic wagon were historically fitting. The costumes seemed deliberately detached of a specific demographic identity; for example, the rival soldiers were dressed in the same uniforms, differentiated only by the red or white arm bands they wore. The lack of national or demographic specificity seemed to point to universal truths and images, like that of the grieving mother: Mother Courage is another Hecuba mourning her children, another Grendel’s Mother raging over her son’s loss, another Mary mourning the dead Jesus.

Laila Al Qadhi’s memorable portrayal of Mother Courage succeeded in evoking all these images. But other elements of the production detracted from her portrayal of Brecht’s titular heroine. Firstly, the addition of Arabic improvised comedy drew the audience into the narrative, rather than distancing them from it, which unintentionally forfeited Brecht’s alienating techniques. Secondly, from an acting standpoint, Al Qadhi’s performance would have benefited from additional variety and nuance. For example, in a scene where she is notified of her son’s death, she immediately bursts into hysteria, without a gradual blooming of emotion.

Fahad Awadh as Swiss Cheese in Mother Courage, adapted and directed by Alison Shan Price for the Kuwait National Council for Culture Arts and Letters. Photo credit: Rizalde Cayanan. Courtesy of One World Actors Centre.

Fahad Awadh as Swiss Cheese in Mother Courage, adapted and directed by Alison Shan Price for the Kuwait National Council for Culture Arts and Letters. Photo credit: Rizalde Cayanan. Courtesy of One World Actors Centre.

Similarly, the portrayal of the Cook by Louise Durnin was energetic and enthusiastic, but during an emotional scene with Mother Courage, the Cook not only seemed apathetic to her plight, but also farcical in the face of tragedy, whereas in Brecht’s script, the character of the Cook is supposed to be more empathetic and vulnerable as the show progresses. Eilif’s monologue about his war crimes, and “hacking” peasants to pieces, was played by Wadih Daher in an almost comical fashion, rather than as a remembrance of a traumatic event. Eilif’s objective in this scene was clearly to boast, but the chosen actions did not match the speech, thereby trivializing the tragedy of Eilif turning into a villain.

The ensemble also had trouble enunciating and projecting their lines at times, making it difficult for audience members to understand certain characters’ dialogue. This issue was compounded by a directorial decision to employ British accents, with the result that actors who were not naturally inclined to speak in that manner would drop in and out of their accents (and while this was certainly alienating, I do not believe that this was an intentional decision in honour of Brecht’s theatrical philosophy).

Tanima Dasgupta in meta-narrative about the life of Gulabo Sapera, in Mother Courage, adapted and directed by Alison Shan Price for the Kuwait National Council for Culture Arts and Letters. Photo credit: Rizalde Cayanan. Courtesy of One World Actors Centre.

Tanima Dasgupta in meta-narrative about the life of Gulabo Sapera, in Mother Courage, adapted and directed by Alison Shan Price for the Kuwait National Council for Culture Arts and Letters. Photo credit: Rizalde Cayanan. Courtesy of One World Actors Centre.

In addition, rather than allowing Brecht’s script to communicate images and emotions on its own, the adaptation added four “meta-narratives,” selected and developed by members of the multicultural acting company from key moments in the history of their countries of origin or heritage, and interspersed throughout the play. These meta-narratives, which included miming and onstage narration, defied the temporal logic of Brecht’s play, traveling through time to portray a (mostly) common thread: the horrors women endure in war. The first narration portrayed “The Dance of Zalongo,” in which a group of about 60 Greek women committed suicide by throwing themselves of a cliff, rather than allowing Ottoman troops to dishonour them. The second meta-narrative was a reading of a private letter written by English archaeologist and political officer Gertrude Bell to her stepmother on the 3rd of May 1917, about Albanians evacuating their homes, fearing Ottoman persecution. The third narration recounted the story of Indian dancer Gulabo Sapera: buried alive right after her birth in 1973 for the simple reason that she was a girl, she survived, became an influential dancer, and was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in India. As this narrative ended, a young Indian woman gave a graceful traditional solo dance, but while this was an inspiring story, it was unclear how it related to the previous meta-narratives. The final narration came at the end of the play: after Mother Courage’s last remaining child, Kattrin, is shot by invading soldiers, a choreographed combat broke out and a tableau was struck, after which a female actor (Sarah Al-Khabbaz) bearing the Kuwaiti flag gave a speech about the sacrifices and the heroism of Kuwaiti women during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Sarah al Khabbaz in meta-narrative about women in wartime Kuwait, in Mother Courage, adapted and directed by Alison Shan Price for the Kuwait National Council for Culture Arts and Letters. Photo credit: Rizalde Cayanan. Courtesy of One World Actors Centre.

Sarah al Khabbaz in meta-narrative about women in wartime Kuwait, in Mother Courage, adapted and directed by Alison Shan Price for the Kuwait National Council for Culture Arts and Letters. Photo credit: Rizalde Cayanan. Courtesy of One World Actors Centre.

The meta-narratives were memorable and strikingly portrayed, with very good blocking and scene compositions, but they failed to present a coherent and legible narrative. Why choose these four disparate incidents? Why not choose one path and hone it? Take Kuwaiti heroines, for instance, and give each a meta-narrative in an appropriate place in the Mother Courage script. Martyrs like Asrar Al-Gabandi, Sanaa Al-Fodari, and Wafaa Al-Amer deserve better representation than a single speech aimed to appeal to emotions associated with the invasion; if anything, the speech seemed to trivialize the lived wartime experiences of Kuwaiti women, because while other meta-narratives were specific in naming heroines or addressing actions they took, this final one was expressionless and blank. The production premiered during the month of March, perhaps to cater to the nationalistic fervor of the Kuwaiti population a few weeks after the National and Liberation Day celebrations. But the premise of a play shouldn’t be thrown in at the end; it should shine throughout. Brecht’s play makes its anti-war message very clear, so audiences could have safely been left to draw their own conclusions from the script without these additions.

But those issues aside, the production, director, and cast did raise topics on stage that are often considered too sensitive to discuss in Kuwait, such as the deep traumas inflicted by the occupation. This was an unusual achievement, given that the production was subject to NCCAL’s strict oversight in terms of dialogue and content. And the aim—to highlight not just the suffering but also the courage and heroism of women in war, in a way that was inclusive of the perspectives of its multinational cast members—was commendable. All the more reason to wish that every element of the production had been clearly and effectively communicated to the audience.


Hassan Hajiyah graduated from the American University of Kuwait in 2022 with a major in English Literature. During his time in university, Hassan served as secretary of AUK’s branch of the international theatre honor society Alpha Psi Omega for three consecutive years, then as president for one year. He has performed in multiple theatre productions including Marat/Sade (Sade) The Seagull (Medvedenko), Grease (Doody), The Love for Three Oranges (Cook), Dick Whittington (Ensemble), Arms and the Man (Major Petkoff), Mamma Mia! (Father Alexandrios), and Out at Sea (Fat). In March 2022, he directed his debut production, George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man with Staged in Kuwait Community Theatre. He plans to continue to work in theatre despite the hardships theatre faces in Kuwait.


Arab Stages
Volume 14 (Fall 2023)
©2023 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Founding Editor: Marvin Carlson

Founders: Marvin Carlson and Frank Hentschker

Editor: Edward Ziter

Performance Reviews Editor: Katherine Hennessey

Book Reviews Editor: George Potter

Editorial and Advisory Board: Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Dina Amin, Khalid Amine, Dalia Basiouny, Katherine Donovan, Masud Hamdan, Sameh Hanna, Rolf C. Hemke, Areeg Ibrahim, Jamil Khoury, Dominika Laster, Margaret Litvin, Rebekah Maggor, Safi Mahfouz, Robert Myers, Michael Malek Naijar, Hala Nassar, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian.

Managing Editors: Melissa Flower Gladney and Juhyun Woo

 

Table of Contents:

“Indigenous Avant-Gardes”: The Shiraz Arts Festival and Ritual Performance Theory in 1970s Iran by Matthew Randle-Bent

Up There by Wael Kadour, Introduction by Edward Ziter

Baba written by Denmo Ibrahim, directed by Hamid Dehghani, reviewed by Suzi Elnaggar

Decolonizing Sarah: A Hurricane Play written and directed by Samer Al-Saber, reviewed by George Potter

Layalina written by Martin Yousif Zebari, directed by Sivan Battat, reviewed by Sami Ismat

Mother Courage adapted and directed by Alison Shan Price, reviewed by Hassan Hajiyah

Playwright Showcase, New Arab American Theater Works, reviewed by Katherine Hennessey

Review of MUKHRIJĀT AL-MASRAḤ AL-MIṢRĪ (1990-2010): DIRĀSA SĪMIYŪṬĪQĪYAH [Female Egyptian Directors (1990-2010): A Semiotic Study], written by Hadia Abd El-Fattah, reviewed by Areeg Ibrahim

Review of Theaters of Citizenship: Aesthetics and Politics of Avant-Garde Performance in Egypt written by Sonali Pahwa, reviewed by Suzi Elnaggar

Review of Syrian Refugees, Applied Theater, Workshop Facilitation, and Stories: While They Were Waiting written by Fadi Skeiker, reviewed by Sonja Arsham Kuftinec

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