The Long-Awaited Mother Courage Post (Better late than never..)


Hello folks. Now, I realize that in my previous offering I promised a post regarding all things theatrical to follow soon and here we are nearly two and half months later. So sorry about that folks, but things have been rather hectic of late… I will try to keep it concise. Those of you who have been following my updates on Twitter will be well aware of all the day to day action. Incidentally, although the Duke himself has been tweeting (and how much do I despise using that word?!) for quite some time now, you can now follow Paul Pilot and Ben Castle to keep up with all the backstage news and shenanigans.

Tonight the Duke Special band will return to the National Theatre for our last short run of the marvelous Brecht play Mother Courage & Her Children. There are only seven performances left out of about 65, so I’m pretty sure we’ve got it down now… Although it was amazing how after nearly a month off I had lost all concept of the pacing of the show; lurking nervously backstage waiting for cues like a novice…

Anyway, back to the beginning. We started rehearsing this monster of a play back in mid-August, both at rehearsal studios and at the National. It wasn’t until quite late in the process that we were actually able to rehearse the music with the actors. Tony Kushner’s recent translation of the play had been put on once previously in New York with Meryl Streep as Mother Courage with the songs scored by Jeanine Tesori. Peter was asked to write a brand new score for this production after he met Fiona Shaw at an awards ceremony in Los Angeles.
During the rehearsal process the songs went through so many variations, cuts and key-changes as director Deborah Warner’s staging came into play. The Olivier Theatre (the largest of the three performance spaces at the National) is a vast space and the band were to be split between the stage itself and the two ‘ashtrays’ either side of the stage (two large raised podiums where we stationed ourselves permanently with percussion, keyboards and my main bass). It wasn’t until we joined the actors in one of the National’s huge rehearsal rooms that it became clear who could be on stage during each song and who would be positioned off stage in the ashtrays. Hence further re-orchestration! It was a fascinating process to go through and this continued right through into the technical rehearsals and even during the previews.
It was the long period of previews and tech rehearsal that proved the most arduous. We would arrive at the theatre in the morning for a full day of rehearsing onstage; refining the flow of the play and the scene changes, and then go on to perform the whole thing in preview each night. We spent the lion’s share of the tech rehearsal traipsing back and forth inside an enormous tent for scene two, which proved to be one of the more ambitious scene changes. At one point the entire band was meant to surreptitiously emerge on a lift inside the tent once it was in place and we must have spent at least two entire days going up and down and back and forth before it was decided that this was entirely impractical… Ah, how I will miss that tent!

The play had it’s official opening at the end of September after the previews were extended. Once we were up and running, Peter started a series of free gigs in the foyer every Friday and Saturday night after the performance. These proved a massive hit with packed audiences (often including cast and crew) treated to impromptu sets from the entire band, featuring both Duke Special songs and one-off covers that we’d cobble together during the day. A lot of these performances were captured on video and are sprawled all across YouTube if you are that way inclined. We also had the great fortune to be joined by some very special guests including Fiona Shaw, Paul Pilot, Foy Vance and the marvelous Foreign Slippers.
Being a part of this production has been a real adventure. Until now I had done very little work in the theatre and I’d certainly never done a long run like this before. It’s been a fascinating experience seeing the production come together from the beginning, and being involved so deeply in the rehearsal process was a real privilege. Just watching director Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw (Mother Courage) work was an education in itself.
This was my first proper encounter with in-ear monitoring. As we were playing in various positions around the stage, all of us were using IEMs and most of our instruments were equipped with wireless systems so we were free to move about with the action. The wireless pickup on my stunt bass (ie; the one I parade around the stage with) was brilliant; I’ve worked a few little bass spins into the action over the last week as a tribute to the joy they bring! The IEMs took a lot of getting used to for me. I seemed to have the most trouble with wireless reception up in the ashtray (It reminded me of my old T-Mobile days!), but it was fantastic for vocals with my little Madonna mic strapped to my face.
At the beginning of the long run in October Peter and Paul began working on the Mother Courage album. This proved a rather exhausting project for the boys as they squeezed every last spare minute out of their busy schedule between shows to dash to the studio. The finished article finally arrived last week and the results are beautiful. If you don’t have your copy yet, you can pick one up at the Theatre or order it online at the Duke Special Store. The songs have been given the full Duke treatment for the album with some excellent additional string and brass arrangements from Ben Castle. We’re all very proud of the results. The Mother Courage and Her Children album is also available as part of the Duke’s The Stage, A Book & The Silver Screen boxed set, which also features The Silent World of Hector Mann and the Huckleberry Finn EP. In fact, I’d recommend you all go forth and buy this instantly; it really is quite fantastic…
So what have I learnt from this experience you may well ask? Well, I now know that I am not a big fan of tents and will probably not be going on a camping holiday anytime in the near future. I have discovered that I am not very good with ladders (I have virtually knee-capped myself at least a dozen times and had a big bruise on my right calf for at least half the run; it’s amazing how you don’t think about these things until you need to go up and down in a hurry). I have also come to the conclusion that in-ear monitors are not really my bag. I miss the trouser-flapping presence of a big bass amp behind me. And the length of the run and the number of shows was perfect for me. It was long enough to really get into the production and really feel part of the team at the National, but not too long as to take over my life. I’m not sure how I would fare in a long-running West end show…
So there’s still seven shows left starting tonight if you haven’t seen the show yet. I’d get booking your tickets straight away if I were you; I think it is virtually sold out. As it should be.
It just remains for me to give a big thanks to Peter for involving me in this amazing project and thank everybody at the National Theatre; the staff, cast and crew for all their help over the past few months and for making this whole experience a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable one. The National really is a marvelous institution. Here’s hoping they invite us back sometime in the future!
Until next time…

One Response to “The Long-Awaited Mother Courage Post (Better late than never..)”

  • MrFizzy Says:

    Fabulous back stage insight into the trials and tribulations of staging this enormous production Simon. There is so much depth to the play and we've been several times and noted the hazardous ladder ascent to the ashtrays by the band. We were also lucky enough to see you all at the fantastic lobby "giglets" 🙂

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