What Happens When Bertolt Brecht’s Masterpiece “Mother Courage” is Reimagined by a Chinese Theatrical Genius? One Picture is Worth a 1000 Words!

Zhao Miao’s masterful production of Mother Courage and Her Children

at the Edinburgh 2023 Festival Fringe

Professor Joe Goldblatt

The world premiere of Mother Courage and Her Children took place in Zurich, Switzerland in 1941 and was the playwright’s direct response to the invasion of Poland by Hitler’s Nazi army. The play was first performed in Switzerland because it was deemed too dangerous to be performed in other European cities.

It is still, 82 years later, a very dangerous play. When I asked the Beijing, China based director of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe premiere production if he was concerned about the political reactions to the play he replied “The only reaction that is most important is that of the audience.”

Brecht, the father of epic theatre, would appreciate this focus upon the audience reaction because his plays were political by intent. The current reimagined production of his most famous play continues to invoke a sense of danger, thrilling suspense, and deep compassion as the actor’s physical imagery literally rolls over the audience as though they are being consumed by giant tidal waves of intellectual and emotional complex thought.

The eight member cast has brought to the 2023 Edinburgh Festival Fringe a production that uses extraordinary physical movements, creative masks, and a strong ensemble approach to effectively communicate Brecht’s ideas to the audience in a fast moving production. Coupled with subtle and very effective lighting scene transitions and the originally designed makeup and innovative masks, the sublime storytellers from China easily communicate with the audience the compassion of family, the horror of war, and the determination of a better world to come.

A simple flick of a Chinese fan suddenly reveals to the audience a strong knife that may be used to harm an enemy and a small banner instantly is transformed into a cart used by the courageous mother to save her children from harm. A small drum instantly invokes the sound of heart beats and the mother’s intense view of the distant horizon reveals her boundless hope and desire.

Perhaps the most remarkable single element of this unique production is the rare ability of the actors to move, breathe, and indeed remarkably master share their same heart beat throughout their time on stage. The result is an organic feeling of a spiritual movement that is part ritual and part transformative place making. Rarely have I seen an ensemble work so closely together to achieve the sense of one actor with many arms, legs, and attitudes that complement one another so well.

Early in the production the mother shakes a small coin purse and the sound of the life saving silver within creates a spine tingling sensation among the audience members as it represents life itself for this family that is under constant threat. In a current world that is threatened by environmental degradation, fascism, and war, the relevance of this play could not be more apparent and director Zhao Miao is to be congratulated for not only reviving but also dramatically reimagining this work of art to remind current and future generations of the danger we all face now and in the future.

I also asked the director if he felt qualified as a male director to understand the deep emotions of the female members of his cast and he at first silently contemplated my question and then explained that his actors, both male and female, help him to better understand and reveal these emotions throughout the rehearsal process.

The genius of this ten year veteran director of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is his ability to turn an outstretched palm facing upwards into a strong statement of boundless hope and the slow folding of a cloth into the tragedy of death as well as unite all eight actors into a strong emotional bond that leaves the audience gasping for breath at the sheer beauty of his physical theatre storytelling. Bertolt Brecht would not only be proud of this performance, he might ask, why did it take so long for someone to realise the power of his worlds through physical interpretation could possibly be even more transformative that the original lines he conceived those many years ago in Zurich duriing the dark days of war. He would welcome this new illumination and despite the often sad themes he would join the audience and loudly applauding the Chinese actor’s ability to remind us that indeed, one beautifully conceived stage picture by Zhao. Miao is indeed worth a thousand words.

Mother Courage and Her Children is being performed at The Space in Surgeon’s Hall at 11:30am and it shall have its Chinese premier at the Guilin Festival, in October, in Guilin, China. For tickets visit https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/mother-courage-and-her-children To learn more about the Guilin Festival in October 2023, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0uxP4_PKlaI

Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University. His views are his own. To read more about his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot

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