Bertolt Brecht’s great anti-war play survives a modish updating thanks to an outstanding performance from Josie Lawrence, says C DOHERTY
Mother Courage and Her Children Southwark Playhouse, London 3/5
JUST before the beginning of the performance, my hopes for this production plummet. Directed to my seat by two khaki-clad members of the ensemble, I wonder if I’ve travelled back a decade in time.
Thundering chopper noise as soundscape, a scaffold-heavy set, an awkward shuffle around a cast member playing toy soldiers on the floor. I’d been here before.
The production team seemed to have taken every leaf out of the mid-noughties design concepts of Black Watch and Shakespeare’s Roman plays set in Iraq and stitched them into a canvas-shrouded auditorium.
The director’s programme notes make clear that this is an attempt to engage with the brutality of war and its destruction of human life.
Yet the clamour of this interpretation risks overlooking the ideological critique of the original Bertolt Brecht play, with its theme of the devastating effects of a European war and the blindness of anyone hoping to profit by it, wonderfully captured here in Tony Kushner’s translation.
Set during the Thirty Years War of 1618–1648, a conflagration which engulfed all of Europe, it tells the story of Mother Courage, the wily canteen woman with the Swedish Army determined to make her living from the conflict. But she loses all three of her children to the very war from which she tried to profit.
Were it not for the sensational performance by Josie Lawrence as Mother Courage (pictured), the production could well have fallen into the futile trap of attempting to overpower the audience with those sensations of 21st-century warfare. Brecht’s intentions emerge unscathed.
Her interpretation of the eponymous protagonist is a meditation on the ugliness of survival during times of scarcity and there is no heroism to be wrung from any of the roles — the preacher is a coward, the cook a philanderer and Courage’s mute daughter Katrin (Phoebe Vigor) sacrifices herself only when it’s clear she will never find a husband.
Mother Courage turns a profit from the war because she never knows how long the season of bounty will last and, with it, food for her children.
In The Great Capitulation Song, an anthem to the futility of resistance, Lawrence captures the grit and wisdom of someone against whom the odds are perpetually stacked and advocates survival as the next best thing to revolution.
Other stand-outs are Yvette (Laura Checkley), the canny prostitute and wrangler for Courage and her children, whose vocal ability to project across the acoustically hampered tent space hugely impresses and David Shelley as the spineless Chaplain, eager to avoid martyrdom but willing to dispense judgement to anyone within range.
More might have been made of Brecht’s theatre practice. Onstage transformations would have demonstrated the range of the actors and the direct address is, unfortunately, always spoken above the action rather than to the audience.
But the final moment shatters the flimsy fourth wall in this traverse staging. Mother Courage, forced to continue pulling her wagon and chasing the business of a depleted army, reaches out to a woman of similar age in the audience.
A few seconds pass in hesitation, then the gesture is returned. Lawrence squeezes the woman’s hand, bows her head, and carries on.