Red Ladder’s production of Mother Courage is like an amazing curry: it’s very good at the time but even better the day after. That’s because there’s a lot to savour and the elements have had time to meld.

Bertolt Brecht wrote the play in 1939 just after the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia. He wanted to examine what war did to ordinary people so he set it during the Thirty Years’ War (1618 -1648) which killed half the population of Western Europe.

In a wonderful, riveting performance by Pauline McLynn (not drawing on Mrs Doyle for a moment), Mother Courage sells anything she can get to the army, any army wherever they are, and as the war moves on, she and her three children drag their cart from battleground to battleground. Along the way she bargains and deals and slowly loses everything until, in a final astonishing image, she is left alone with her cart.

Under ordinary circumstances that last paragraph would be a spoiler, but not here. Brecht wanted his audience to watch his plays the way they watch sport, objectively analysing the behaviour on view. To stop them getting too emotionally involved he invented techniques to achieve what is known as the alienation effect. He removes tension from the narrative by telling you what’s going to happen at the beginning of every scene; he makes it explicitly clear that the audience know they are in a theatre watching a show; and songs are used to explain motives and actions, not to create emotional charge.

Press photo. Bea Webster (Kattrin) and T.J Holmes (Chaplain). Mother Courage and her Children. Red Ladder. Photo Anthony Robling.It’s difficult to get it right, but director Rod Dixon absolutely does. Some directors think alienation means the acting must be unengaging but it’s exactly the opposite. The acting has to be exceptional and Dixon has helped his cast to achieve that. I’m not going to mention everybody but I can’t let the stand-out performance of Bea Webster as Kattrin, the dumb daughter, go by. Audiences tend to look at actors who are speaking, but Webster had no difficulty attracting our eye and I think we understood everything she thought.

In theatres the play is normally done the way Brecht wanted it, on a revolving stage so the cart can be pulled forward while the stage moves under it, keeping the cart centre-stage. Dixon is having none of that.  This is a promenade production in an old warehouse in South Leeds and, as the cart moves from space to space, we follow it. It is largely successful, although there was one scene where it was difficult for a sizeable number of the audience to see everything, and I found standing for much of two hours in an unheated warehouse fairly alienating in itself. But perhaps that was intentional.

The translation is by Lee Hall who wrote some film about a young boy ballet dancer, and it works very well. The music, by Boff of Chumbawamba, is catchy and singalong where it needs to be, and although he says he thinks Brecht might not like it, I rather think he would. 

Press photo. Pauline McLynn (Mother Courage) - Mother Courage and Her Children. Red Ladder. Photo Anthony Robling.This is Red Ladder’s 50th anniversary production. Happy Birthday. They lost their Arts Council grant a couple of years ago but I was delighted to learn they’d got it back, and this production shows what a good decision that was.

By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor

Main image: Pauline McLynn (Mother Courage) Bea Webster (Kattrin). Photo by Anthony Robling.



Mother Courage runs until October 20, 2018. For more information, click here.