Theatre Review: Mother Courage and Her Children, Royal Exchange, Manchester
“The thing about Brecht,” says Housemate, “is you’re not supposed to feel empathy towards the characters.”
I’m once again waxing lyrical about Julie Hesmondhalgh who is back treading the boards at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, playing the titular role in Anna Jordan’s adaptation of Mother Courage and her Children. Perhaps I’ll park the fan-girling for this production.
Written in 1939 in response to the rise of fascism and Nazism in his homeland of Germany, Mother Courage was originally set during the 30 Years’ War which took place in 17th century Europe. Jordan’s adaptation brings Brecht’s text up-to-date with absolute aplomb and grit. It’s relatable, comical and I’m in stiches at some of the dialogue – particularly between Chef (Guy Rhys), Courage and Minister (Kevin McMonagle) – but its subject matter is also pretty on the nose.
Taking place in a dystopian future, war rages between the Blue and Red armies. Frequent reference is made to ‘what was once known as’ parts of Europe and the land is simply carved into zones. The decision to strip back a sense of place and fast-forward the narrative to our distant future breathes a new life into a play predominantly staged in its original timeframe.
Despite my love for Hesmondhalgh – she’s stellar as a ballsy, punk Courage – the play manages to retain Brecht’s view that the audience should not sympathise with Courage’s plight or behaviour, rather see her as foolish to remain complicit in a system that will ultimately destroy her. Throughout must of the play, the only character I feel a jot of sympathy for is Kattrin (played beautifully by Rose Ayling-Ellis) who experiences things too deeply in a climate where feelings mean very little.
In the era of #MeToo and Times Up, Mother Courage touches on some interesting points. The cast is predominantly male – something which I later read was a deliberate choice – and women are the minority. So it’s hardly surprising that they’ve learned to protect themselves at all costs.
Hesmondalgh’s Courage is a confusing feminist hero. While she operates as a woman of power in a male-dominated world, she clearly gets a thrill from this success and thinks nothing of pimping out desperate women (and talking about her daughter’s lack of beauty after she’s been brutalised is hardly the stuff of feminist dreams). I thoroughly enjoyed this fresh take on a well known character. I wonder, though, if we’d find Courage so selfish if she were male? It’s certainly food for thought. In an interview included in the play’s programme, Hesmondhalgh poses the question: faced with these odds – isn’t it possible we could all behave a bit like Mother Courage? I reckon we might.
Joanna Scotcher’s set design is chock-full of brilliant detail and conjures up thoughts of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Courage’s wooden cart has been replaced by a battered ice-cream van (pulled by her brood) which becomes increasingly dilapidated as war rages on. The Mad Max apocalyptic vibe works well, and the inclusion of each scene scrawled in black marker on bits of tatty cardboard is a nice nod to the chronology of the play. The aesthetic is slightly punk and reflected in the characters’ costumes and style.
The inclusion of music and lyrics by Jim Fortune is a nice touch but at times I couldn’t hear what was being said over the live band. There were also a few instances when gags were shoehorned in for comic effect rather than any relevance to the narrative, but these were minor issues in an otherwise fantastic production.
Be warned, Mother Courage is bloody brutal viewing and I well up as we witness Kattrin ‘ruined’ by unnamed men. The action takes place offstage, but Ayling-Ellis’s reaction is heart-breaking and bloody powerful. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
But shouldn’t it be surprising that a piece of work written 70 years ago is still so relevant? It should leave us feeling terrified, but it doesn’t. A man in front of me even yawns but that’s no reflection on the production because it’s brilliant – a testament to the world we’ve created.
Housemate and I walk up Cross Street and I feel a bit weird. I’m not great with violence (action movies are viewed from behind a cushion) and I can’t stop thinking that this is all going on right now, somewhere else in the globe, and how we’re all just doing normal stuff.
“Ah,” says Housemate. “That’s the beauty of Brecht.”
Images by The Other Richard, Richard Davenport
Mother Courage is on at Manchester’s Royal Exchange until March 2, 2019. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.
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