Stratford Festival’s “Mother Courage and Her Children”

On August 1st I had the pleasure of meeting up with one of my best friends to see Mother Courage and Her Children. I had learned that Brecht was almost an acquired taste and can be seen as odd, however I found this play to be exceptionally entertaining and very easy to follow, although Brecht’s sense of alienation effect (or Verfremdungseffekt) was certainly still present.

The way that Brecht chose to tell this story was very interesting. The play is not gendered as a musical, and yet songs punctuate the play. They are rather folk-like songs that emphasize the war time nature of the play. But they are mixed in with what turns out to be dark and depressing material. This adds to the alienation effect that Brecht is so famous for. Something terrible can happen in one scene, and in the next there’s singing. It’s odd, and makes you think more about what you’re watching and almost shocks you into the fact that you are indeed watching a play.

Another major factor in that Verfremdungseffekt is the way that the dates and scene titles are introduced. It’s very disruptive, as they come out almost every scene, but what I found was the most interesting was that they would often tell you what would ultimately happen in the scene. This creates a sense of expectation and anticipation while you watch. What’s interesting is that they give you just enough information so that it creates this feeling, but not enough that you get a feeling of dramatic irony. I knew what was going to happen, just not how. It was fascinating.

I feel like hearing about this play before seeing it set me up with a lot of expectations, most of which were happily dispelled upon actually seeing it. For example, I heard that this was a great tragedy, and while it certainly wasn’t all that perky, I didn’t feel as moved or saddened by it as I was by other plays I have seen. While I certainly wasn’t all smiles, I didn’t cry either (although I expected I was going to). Another example is that I didn’t find that I disliked Mother Courage. I found that I was able to understand her in a way. She thought she was doing what was best for her children. While she attempted to prevent them from going to war, her main problem was that she was absent when she could have prevented them from dying. This was hard to watch, and yet she was doing what she thought best for her and her children. Had she known what was about to happen, as we did, I feel like she would have been there to protect them.

The play is certainly a critique of capitalist society, especially in the extreme situation of war. However I’m not sure how mad that makes Mother Courage. Of course, there is one moment where she does appear to be mad in the traditional sense (no spoilers!), I don’t think that her desire for money makes her mad. She seemed to me to be resourceful and hardworking, a very good example of a single mother with three grown children who live with her. However, I do see how it could be seen that her bartering for lives (again, I won’t spoil!) could be seen as crazy. This play definitely does not give a clear cut answer to the madness question, just as there is not a clear cut resolution to the play.

The acting in this play was superb. Seana McKenna was fantastic as the titular character. She made me feel bad for her, question her choices, and love watching her fall in love all at once. For me, this is just another fabulous character to add to her amazing portfolio. Carmen Grant at Kattrin was actually the most heart wrenching character of the play; she was the one who truly pulled on our heartstrings rather than her mother. E.B. Smith and Antoine Yared played the other two children, Eilif and Swiss Cheese respectively, and they were also wonderful. It was a wonderful ensemble also featuring Ben Carlson and Geraint Wynn Davies. I can’t say enough good things about this play. It was such an interesting experience and so well acted it made it an absolute pleasure to behold.

On an interesting note, Mother Courage and Her Children takes place in Sweden in the early 1620’s. This is just before the reign of Christina, the main character of Christina the Girl King. So if you want to have a really interesting day of theatre, it would be awesome to go and see Mother Courage at 2 and Christina at 8 (or even one after the other on separate days). It’s so interesting to see the links between plays, not only thematically, but as in this case, time, place, and issues.

If you’d like to buy tickets, here’s the link! :

Stratford Festival’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Chamber Play”

Coming into this play on July 31st, I had no idea what to expect. My mind was subsequently taken to its darkest corners by a play I was used to thinking of as light and airy. This is certainly a hard one to review, as I don’t believe I fully understood it myself, however I’m going to do my best. Here are my initial thoughts about the play.

In regards to the set and the initial feel of the space, it was certainly an immersive and estranging experience. First of all, to be at the Masonic Hall in Stratford and not one of the four main stages was immediately alienating for me. I didn’t know where I was going or where to sit like at the other plays. Then as I walked in, there is this huge art instillation all over the room that we as the audience become a part of. With almost exclusively metallic materials and aluminum foil as a base, it certainly gave us something to look at before the show began although I am still puzzled as to why she chose all of those objects in particular and what significance the metallic room had. However the set onstage was rather plain and it was difficult to figure out exactly where we were supposed to be. To me, it looked like some kind of sanatorium or mad house. The walls were bare, and there were no windows and only one door. The walls looked as if they had been scratched over and over again by the inhabitant. It felt like they were in this super sanitary environment while we sat amongst chaos. It was absolutely fascinating even before they spoke a single word.

There were four actors in the play, Sarah Afful, Dion Johnstone, Trish Lindström and Mike Nadajewski. All of them truly performed exceptionally well. I did find it was interesting that the four people shared the stage, when it looked like a solitary confinement room. I was mesmerized by them. This was a huge play to attempt with only four people, but the text was cut down well to accommodate the size of the cast. The dialogue was absolutely fluid. They could change time, place and characters and yet there was no break in their words. For me, I was able to keep up because I know the play well. However, for someone who does not know the play well, this would have been extremely confusing. And while some characters have been cut out of the play, it never seemed to inhibit the flow of dialogue or the story itself. What was odd for me was the random outbursts the characters had. I felt like they would scream dialogue that didn’t require such an emotional response. And then the stand under our seats would rumble whenever one of these outbursts happened, which was scary, but also made us part of their seeming madness. To me, it seemed like the words they said were not as significant as how they said them. They could say nice things in a negative tone or negative things in a pleasant tone. I was confused. However what was interesting was how the feelings and emotions that each person had carried through to each character. While this was troubling in some case, (like why is Hermia seemingly in love with Demetrius? Was she supposed to be someone else and I missed the change?) it did make for some interesting scenes, particularly in the fairy world.

Puck’s final speech, a personal favourite, was of particular interest to me. This is generally thought to be spoken to the audience, and to ease our minds about the events that have just passed. However in this interpretation Puck (played by Afful) said the speech to the other players, and not the audience. It was like it was their minds who may have been disturbed or offended by the events that just took place. It was very avant-garde but also added to that estranging feeling that pervaded the play.

It was fascinating to me how different a familiar play can be. I know this play well, and yet to see it told in this manner, so dark and deep into madness, I felt like I was watching something entirely new and different. I felt like I was in a daze like the lovers as I exited the theatre, and I’ve never heard a more quiet audience leaving a theatre. I think we were all a little mystified as to what we had just witnessed and been a part of.

Now, because of my lingering questions and puzzlement over this play, I’ve done something I so rarely do: read the directors notes on the play. Given what I’ve read, here are some new assessments of the play based on Peter Sellars’ notes.

 I found that the notes were certainly not the key to unlocking the mystery of this play. While they did help a little, I had envisioned other possibilities than what Sellars talks about in his notes.

He says that the darkness of the forest creates the fear and uncertainty that he draws on in the play. This I understand, but at the same time it is only the four lovers that are uneasy in the forest, not anyone else, and especially not the fairies who inhabit the forest, yet this darkness presides over the entire play.

I like how he used the great chain of being to explain why there are multiple characters being played by one actor. That all of these levels of people are able to converge on one place in this play is quite amazing. However to me this is a thing to be celebrated, and is not a dark and scary thing.

He talks about the idea of cosmology, which in my mind invokes humoural theory. Prevalent in the renaissance, humoural theory posits that the whole world can be linked to the four elements, and that if a person is in perfect balance, they are one with the universe. If this was the approach that Sellars had have used for his characters, I think I would have been able to make more sense of the play; each character representing one of those humours and carrying that humour with them through all of the characters. He even mentions the fact that there being 4 of them is special in having a couple of couples, but doesn’t go as far as giving them any kind of designation, humoural or otherwise. Like I said, looking at the great chain of being for this play makes sense, but had he explained more about it in his notes, I think I would be able to fully grasp his ideas.

Personally, I feel like he picked up on this one, little explored aspect of the play, and then made it last through the whole play; over all of the tender, loving and happy moments there is darkness. I do understand that it was supposed to be an experimental play, but I don’t know how many patrons understand this when walking into the theatre, nor do we know the results from the performance. While it did have an effect on me, it certainly was not the one I expected. This is certainly not a traditional theatre experience, but for those who are interested in a new and unforgettable experience, this is the play to see!

Stratford Festival’s “Christina the Girl King”

I was so excited to get to see the second preview of this wonderful new play on July 31st. This moving piece was the first of 5 that I saw over that week, and it was an exquisite way to start off my trip.

The story is based on the life of Christina, the Queen of Sweden. She became a Queen young in life, and wanted her country to be the most sophisticated country in the world. Throughout the play we watch as pressures from those in her court, her own family, and her own desire to discover herself, drive her in a direction that even she could not have anticipated.

I really enjoyed the fact that this play takes place just after Shakespeare’s lifetime, but in a totally different country, making it at once familiar and foreign. Of course, because the play is based on an actual Queen, the story already has it’s time and place, and yet there are several other visual factors that add to the play itself. The costumes were very Elizabethan, with large ruffs and strings of pearls. However the presence of René Descartes as one of the driving influences in Christina’s life firmly places the story in history for a modern audience who would be familiar with his most famous phrase “I think, therefore I am.”

The fact that Christina and her family are Lutherans really heightens the stakes of the play. Her religion is one of those outside forces that make it difficult for Christina, not only to rule her country the way she wants, but also to truly be herself. While changing religions ultimately does not help Christina, it made her inner conflict all the more difficult and was a major leverage point for the people around her, creating several tense moments that were just as hard to watch as for Christina to have to endure.

While the whole cast was absolutely stellar, there are a few names that are worth highlighting:

Jenny Young, the actress who portrayed Christina was absolutely wonderful. This is her Stratford debut and I thought that she played this complex character expertly well. I found that she really made me pity her character, and want Christina to triumph over the constant pressures she was under.

Claire Lautier played Christina’s confidant, Duchess Ebba Sparre. I thought that she was also wonderful, a perfect match for Jenny. They balanced each other so well, and the chemistry they shared was palpable. Her character goes on an equally emotional journey throughout the play; however we are unfortunately not privy to her thoughts as we are at times to Christina’s. I was thrilled to see Claire return this season and she truly impressed me with this role.

Patricia Collins’ character Maria Elinora of Brandenburg (Christina’s mother) was just perfectly despicable, and she played it so well. Her character shows what a moral centre Christina provides, even though the other characters are not able to be open to her ideas. I thought she was very funny, and what her character divulges changed the course of the play in a way I had not anticipated.

The men of the cast presented a stark contrast to the women. Wayne Best as Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna, Graham Abbey as Count Johan Oxenstierna, and Rylan Wilkie as Karl Gustav were all trying to force Christina to fit into the mold left by her father and that she as a monarch should have filled. In attempting to make her into their ideal, they eventually drive her away. However, John Kirkpatrick as René Descartes is the only man who allows Christina to explore herself and her world in a way that she did not think possible and does not force Christina to do anything; he merely gives her the tools to make her own choices. And yet what happens to him is less than pleasant because of this.

I felt that the play was exceptionally well written. It had the beauty and the power to match that of its main character. It made the play all the more enjoyable as it had the same poetic nature as a play of the time. I love that this play was commissioned by the Festival as well; it fit in so well with the ‘minds pushed to the edge’ theme and with the talents of the Festival as well.

I would highly recommend seeing this play. It truly moved me, and showed me how it does not matter who is involved in a love story, forbidden love is one of the hardest things for us to overcome, and when we cannot, it is the hardest thing to try and replace. I love getting to have a beautiful, moving theatre experience like this one; it reminds me why I love the theatre and how amazing seeing a new play can be!

Here’s where you can purchase tickets: