Mother Courage and her Children
Bertolt Brecht, adapted by Anna Jordan
Royal Exchange Theatre and Headlong
Royal Exchange Theatre
Award-winning actress Julie Hesmondhalgh, who has given some stunning performances on this same stage in the past (including Wit and The Almighty Sometimes) returns to the Royal Exchange in what has become one of the classic female stage roles.
This Mother Courage has been adapted by Anna Jordan to be uprooted from the seventeenth-century 100-Years War and transferred to a battle-scarred, post-technology world 60 years from now, dystopian futures being particularly fashionable these days. The futuristic setting serves the same purpose as the original—allowing current events to be highlighted through this unfamiliar world—so while it works fine I can't see that it works any better.
The setting is still a civil war, but now the sides are the Reds and the Blues and the land they are fighting over is known as the Grid. Mother Courage pulls her canteen wagon, which in Joanna Scotcher's impressive design is an engineless ice cream van (although the chimes still work), through the battlefield areas, not fussy about which side pays for her wares and with a sharp tongue to talk her way out of trouble. One of the many contradictions that drive the play is that the war that threatens the lives of her three children—sons Eilif (Conor Glean) and Swiss Cheese (Simeon Blake-Hall) and 'dumb' daughter Kattrin (Rose Ayling-Ellis), all from different fathers—also provides Courage with her livelihood and she dreads the day that peace breaks out. Brecht in his 'model book' said that this play portrays war as a "continuation of business by other means".
One of Brecht's major concerns was to make clear how the result of each situation comes from conscious choices made by the characters, so if something bad happens it was avoidable, not inevitable (Brecht was writing this play in exile from the Nazis who would make their oppressive measures seem normal and unavoidable to make people feel like it was pointless to resist). That isn't always clear in this production. For instance, when Courage loses her eldest son Eilif to the military recruiters because she opts to go for the sale rather than protecting her children (she sells a Kevlar vest rather than a belt buckle in this version), the decision is a bit fudged so it looks as though she couldn't have done anything to stop it.
There is also a lack of Brecht's meticulous detail in putting across the story and the message of each scene. We never see the Chef (Guy Rhys) return for his belongings when Courage leaves without him (so that, in Brecht's words, "the parting of the ways is made visible"), and one of the most active scenes, when Courage is trying to prevent her precious shirts being taken for bandages as the battle almost comes onto the stage, the action is messy with big gaps where no one seems to know what to do, which kills the momentum. The loss of Kattrin, contrary to what many people believe about Brecht, can be a heartrending scene, but here it comes and goes rather swiftly without any emotional connection. While there are at least two mentions of Brecht's term Verfremdungseffekt in the programme, nowhere does it mention another concept important to him: Spaß, or 'fun'.
The dialogue sometimes seems rather stilted with a lot of swearing that sounds more adolescent than the naturally colourful language of soldiers with some touches of basic humour that aren't as funny as the original can be if done well. I couldn't really assess the song lyrics as I couldn't make many of them out, but the original music by Jim Fortune fits in well. This is played live by the wonderful Nick Pynn—whose music I've been listening to live and on record for quite a few years now—all on his own from an array of string and percussion instruments using live looping, something he was doing long before it became fashionable.
Brecht left copious notes on how he directed some of his later productions in the form of 'model books', but he stressed that these were not so other directors could copy him but to show what he was trying to achieve so that others could build on or improve his ideas. It seems from her programme note that Jordan, and perhaps director Amy Hodge as well, wanted to avoid referring to Brecht's concepts and techniques and just adapt the script on the page, which has resulted in a play that isn't quite Brecht but isn't a new Anna Jordan play about the same character either—which could also have been an interesting idea.
This halfway-house of a play is therefore ultimately unsatisfying, as the political points it seeks to raise are as unclear as the story, but Hesmondhalgh is always a very watchable stage presence, the design looks great for the concept and there is some very pleasing music from Fortune and Pynn to accompany the action.