DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Mother Courage and her Children – Albion Electric Warehouse, Leeds

Writer: Bertolt Brecht

Translator: Lee Hall

Director: Rob Dixon

Composer: Boff Whalley

Designer: Sara Perks

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Red Ladder’s remarkable production of Mother Courage and her Children makes a quite different use of the industrial space of Albion Electric Warehouse from the company’s previous The Shed Crew. The audience again promenades, but between more clearly defined areas, the Community Chorus the most benign of sheepdogs as well as surrounding the watchers with their vocal contributions, sung all around the action and the audience.

The setting this time is a huge dusty basement, with an uneven floor and exposed bricks. Mother Courage’s cart rolls pretty much through all scenes, but otherwise, a curtain opens on another place, another space, and we shuffle off to hear the latest confrontation in Mother Courage’s battle for survival. Lighting is powerfully, but subtly, directed and the sounds of celebrations, battles and protests emerge from the corners of the basement in a truly immersive production. 

Lee Hall’s translation of Bertolt Brecht’s (just) pre-World War Two text follows the original pretty closely, though with a briskness not always apparent in other versions, no doubt aided by the sense of movement in the promenade production. His demotic version sees expletives and obscenities flying around with gleeful abandon, used with wit and imaginative flair.

Mother Courage is Brecht’s epic theatre at its most dynamic, the story across some 14 years of the Thirty Years War of her pursuit of the twin goals of survival and profit, while trying to keep her family alive and together. Ultimately she fails on the last mentioned, but is fighting the others to a draw when Brecht leaves her, 12 years before the end of the war, her family gone, still trading, still moving onward.

Mother Courage is one of the great anti-war plays – the casual taking of life is as shocking as the sufferings of the populace in the name of religion – but Mother Courage is not an anti-war character. We may respond to her pragmatic and cynical view of war, but she is not a mouthpiece for Brecht. When a short-lived peace breaks out, she is appalled – war is good business!

A uniformly excellent cast of nine covers the individually identifiable roles with some doubling and assumes half-masks to mime the grotesquerie of the officer class, and the drunken and licentious soldiery. Only two actors focus on a single part – and both are terrific. Pauline McLynn strides through the evening as a voluble and indomitable Mother Courage, a dominant figure as much at home with the bleak final tragedy as with the earthy wit and knockabout confidence of the early stages. Equally remarkable is Bea Webster as her dumb daughter Kattrin, wonderfully expressive facially, in movement and in sign language.

More than the individual performances, however, it is the overall concept of Rod Dixon’s production that makes the strongest impression: the audience trailing round like camp followers on the battle-fields of Europe, Boff Whalley’s robust songs performed with clarity and vigour by the cast and picked up by chorus members throughout the audience, heightened acting performances that tread the border between grotesque comedy and existential despair – and, above all, that magnificent cart rolling through it all.

Runs until 20 October 2018 | Image: Anthony Robling

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Dynamic, epic theatre

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