If the test of a classic is now whether it would survive Dawn French, I wonder if The Mother would come through as well as A Midsummer Night's Dream. Perhaps not, but, during the performance, I kept wishing I could see French whacking the petit-bourgeois malingerers into shape.
French's robust persona would certainly have introduced a note lacking in both the actresses who take the title part in the same evening. While Pelagea Vlassova is a credulous, illiterate peasant, she is played by Gillian Wright (broad, comic Northern accent, lots of eye-popping and sucking of teeth); when, true to her name, the character takes her life into her own hands to become a revolutionary heroine (the play was inspired by Maxim Gorky's 1907 novel of the same title), she is portrayed by Elizabeth Mansfield as authoritative and dignified. One wonders whether, assuming Bertolt Brecht used the same stunt as Annie Casteldine (her production, we are told, closely follows the original, of 1932), some women workers were recruited to the cause by the self-improvement it seemed to promise. Raise the red flag, and learn to talk posh!
In giving us a re-creation of the way a Communist artist addressed the German workers during the turmoil of the Weimar Republic, Visiting Moon Productions has created an interesting evening of drama history. But the difficulty of responding enthusiastically to this play now arises not only from our more comfortable circumstances but also from Brecht's own bullying and hypocrisy. We have to pay for the engaging dramatic and domestic scenes (the mother wraps the gherkins she sells in political leaflets, blank side out; to help the cause she steals material from a neighbour whose children will now have no winter coats but a better future) with too many harangues and terrible Hanns Eisler songs. Neither does the condescension Brecht shows toward his characters, especially the female ones, support his ostensible championship of the downtrodden. The three women who disapprove of Pelagea but dutifully pay a sympathy call when her son is killed are caricatured broadly, and then sit improbably silent while she condemns them.
Steve Trafford's new translation is forceful, and sometimes funny (the mother's soup, she laments, is "not weak it's helpless''), but the company adheres to it too religiously. "He fell straight forward on to his face,'' we are told of a worker attacked by police during a strike while the actor illustrating this episode crumples up on to his side. Couldn't that line be cut or changed? And when a character asks, "You know what gives socialism a bad name?'' I thought, as would anyone who had read George Orwell (or who just knew what to do with such an obvious feed): "Socialists?''
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