Writer: Bertolt Brecht
Composer: Jim Fortune
Adptor/Director: Amy Hodge
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
Many people argue Mother Courage and Her Children is the best play of the 20thCentury but that doesn’t mean it is easy to watch. Author Bertolt Brecht regarded theatre as a means by which he could communicate his political views and treated niceties like set design, characterisation and even plot as secondary considerations.
In a decaying future version of Europe while a war for resources rages itinerant Mother Courage (Julie Hesmondhalgh) emulates the war profiteers. Mother Courage and her children travel the war-torn continent in an increasingly decrepit ice-cream van that serves as a place of barter and even a nightclub/brothel. Although Mother Courage is devoted to her three children she does not appreciate her relentless belief in the benefits of capitalism are actually putting them in danger.
Director Amy Hodge and author Anna Jordan feature many of Brecht’s alienating techniques in their adaptation of the play at The Royal Exchange but their commitment is only partial. At the start of each scene the houselights go up to make sure no-one forgets this is an artificial recreation of reality and Joanna Scotcher’s set is suitably stark with the only real set –piece being the decaying van. The cast regularly break the fourth wall to address musician Nick Pynn by name and cue his playing.
Anna Jordan’s adaptation sets the play in a dystopian future where the concept of countries has broken down and Europe is referred to as ‘The Grid’. The alienating effect of removing reference points for the audience is undermined, however, by spoken introductions which precede each scene and specify the name of the former country where the action is taking place and by the European flag circling the stage ( in a nice touch it is a post-Brexit version with only 12 stars).
Jim Fortune’s score promotes a sense of alienation being a grab-bag of styles played live by Nick Pynn. It may even alienate Brechtian purists being well-removed from the jaded cabaret-style music associated with the author.
In order to communicate his opinions on the corrosive impact of capitalism Brecht went so far as to require actors to exaggerate their performance and adopt grotesque poses emphasising how their characters had suffered. Director Amy Hodge takes a more naturalistic approach that better conveys the human cost of war and reflects aspects of the adaptation most relevant to the present day with terrorists, displaced refugees and exploited sex workers. Many of the more powerful moments are made with subtlety rather than the over-the-top methods favoured by Brecht. Mother Courage loses a son to the army recruitment as she is distracted by counting her ill-gotten gains.
The cast are stuck with playing representations of ideas rather than actual people but rise to the challenge. Conor Glean, as elder son Eilif, has a suitably fatalistic attitude playing a character who is condemned in peacetime for an action that saw him commended during the war. Rose Ayling-Ellis, as daughter Kattrin, is an excellent representation of a traumatised survivor and the only character showing concern for other people.
Julie Hesmondhalgh is decidedly cast against type as the avaricious predator Mother Courage and avoids the two-dimensional stereotype of a grasping monster. Hesmondhalgh offers a complex character delighting in her own clever money-making schemes while showing the desperate need to safeguard her family that motivates her actions. The terrible cost paid by Mother Courage is apparent in Hesmondhalgh’s tortured performance as she bargains for the life of one child while trying to preserve enough funds to feed the other or the blank, dead-eyed look as she is forced to deny the identity of her dead son.
Like the title character, The Royal Exchange’s Mother Courage and Her Children is flawed but fascinating. It feels like a compromise between efforts to pay respect to the author while offering the audience an emotionally engaging show. As such it is unlikely to satisfy purists but still ensures Brecht’s ideas are communicated to a contemporary audience.
Runs until 2 March,2019 | Image: The Other Richard