It was pointed out to me this week what an absurd thing it is for people to do to sit in a darkened room with a group of strangers and be transfixed by a person on a stage pretending to be someone else. And I’m sure if you thought about it too hard you’d have to nod and say – yes, it is an absurd thing. Make believe and all that.
But me, I always liked make believe.
And this week I had one of those reminders of how stomach-churning, hairs of the back of your neck raising theatre can be during the last twenty minutes of Mother Courage and Her Children at the National. To be entirely honest I’d gone out of curiousity rather than expectation (in one of those random gaps that occur in theatre-going I’d never seen a Brecht play on stage). The most used word about the production from those I’d asked about it was “long”. And long doesn’t bother me – once you’ve sat through a Wagner opera then “long” isn’t something that scares you – but when the first thing that springs to mind about a production is its length? Not so good.
And yes, Mother Courage is long. With a first half of two hours I don’t think I’m being controversial in saying that it is too long. And, yes, having a live band on stage (and slowing up the action even more) was a little self indulgent. Okay, rather a lot.
But – and this is one of those huge, clunking buts – I was never less than engaged. I loved the invention. I loved the humour. I loved the money I could see had been spent. I loved, loved Fiona Shaw as a Mother Courage that you were at once compelled and repulsed by.
And I would have gone home happy enough with that. Then in one of those moments that only come around every so often everything just came together in the last twenty minutes of the show in such a way that it split my world a little. Brecht’s story, the acting, the directing, the sound, the lighting and then, oh, the music – and I wanted to scream. Wanted to jump up and bang with Katrin. And then in the play’s dying moments as eternity stretched out in front of me I wanted to melt into the sound of the voice, and the drum beat, as Mother Courage continues as she must continue. Wanted this not to finish as I cried and my heart broke a little and I saw something that I can’t articulate but which I understood completely.
Could that moment have been written? No, of course it couldn’t. It compelled me so completely because it was a product of more than words. The effect of light into darkness, of a rhythm in a song, of a quiver in a voice.
Which is probably why I find myself here, writing for performance and not writing a novel because all of the stuff you can’t control, all the places your words can go – that’s what excites me.