Mother Courage and Her Children

Bertolt Brecht, translated and adapted by Michael Hofman, songs translated by John Willett in new settings by Matthew Scott.
English Touring Theatre
Richmond Theatre
(2006)

Publicuty image

After thirteen years as artistic director of English Touring Theatre, Stephen Unwin was keen to tour a play by the great German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, the subject of his recent monograph for Methuen. So what better than Brecht’'s greatest hit Mother Courage and Her Children with its extraordinary theatrical vision and its relevance to almost any period in humarn history?

If there is a stereotypical Mother Courage it is one of those doughty dames with a deep voice and a tough, down-turned mouth in place of a smile.

Helene Weigel at the Berliner Ensemble in 1948 seemed made for the part of the enterprising trader criss-crossing Europe during the Thirty Years War. As indeed, half a century later, did Glenda Jackson for the Glasgow Citz, and Kathryn Hunter for Shared Experience. Each was strong with a salty touch of stridency; likeable if not exactly lovable.

So it was no surprise that eyebrows were raised when Unwin chose the glamorous Diana Quick for his touring production, marking the 50th anniversary of the playwright’'s death, a three-hour 15-minute performance of the complete text given in Michael Hofmann’'s gutsy, colloquial translation.

Acclaimed for her romantic Julia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited and a quietly watchful mother figure in Ghosts, even the ETT’'s playbill looked all wrong with its picture of a mature but radiant woman wearing a Mona Lisa smile, arms clasped across her breast as if fondly remembering a departed lover.

Indeed Ms Quick told more than one interviewer that she took a fair amount of persuading to accept the role; a huge commitment for any actor, especially hauling that famous heavy cart around the stage again and again making sure it doesn’'t roll out of control and crush a theatre patron sitting in the front row.

So it is a real pleasure to report that she rises magnificently to the challenge, a feisty figure whose striking physical attraction often shines through the tough exterior, as well as ageing convincingly over the play’s passage of sixteen war-torn years.

And like Diana Rigg before her at the National, she brings a Mermanesque vibrato (if not note-perfect tunefulness) to her big musical number: The Song of the Great Surrender.

Indeed Matthew Scott’'s score is one of the triumphs of this production, counterpointing the action with mood music, apparently played live on a keyboard synthesizer, and swelling to muscular melodies for the male chorus, as well as several solos commenting on the horrors and absurdities of war.

The cart is an essential character in the drama. A symbol of the survival of European civilisation, it becomes a centre of honest to goodness venality in a world turned mad by hatred between rival faiths protestant and Roman Catholic and by military delusion.

The simple settings by Paul Wills are pushed to the back of the stage, with a central image of German geography in the 17th century, plus skeletal scenic effects rolled on stage by a superbly disciplined stage management team.

But Brecht’'s signature ‘placard’ announcements are here wisely replaced by the grey-bearded Michael Cronin as narrator, who also does yeoman service as an all-purpose veteran.

A superb twelve-strong supporting cast is almost beyond praise. But individual mention miust be made of Patrick Drury, an ETT regular, whose powerful delivery as the Chaplain makes a strong case for a high moral stance.

Powerful support comes from Wole Ojo as a Swedish general and a tough squaddie, while Janet Whiteside does sterling work as the Farmer’'s Wife in thrall to an invading army.

Memorable performances also come from Tom Georgeson as a droll, pragmatic Geordie canteen cook with a sly, knowing smile; while newcomer Jodie McNee as the dumb daughter Kattrin gives powerful expression to her wordless role.

One must also note that, given Brecht’'s full text, this is a hugely rewarding evening for A-level students who, utterly enthralled, crowded the Richmond stalls and one fondly hopes will also be encouraged to continue their support for live theatre.

The tour continues to Arts Theatre Cambridge November 14-18; Theatre Royal York November 21-25; Theatre Royal Brighton November 28-December 2

Sheila Connor reviewed this production at the Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford, and Peter Lathan at the Gala, Durham

Reviewer: John Thaxter