Mother Courage and Her Children

Bertolt Brecht, translated by Lee Hall
Red Ladder Theatre Company
The Albion Electric Warehouse, Leeds

Pauline McLynn in Mother Courage and Her Children Credit: Anthony Robling
Bea Webster and T J Holmes in Mother Courage and her Children Credit: Anthony Robling
T J Holmes, Pauline McLynn and Luke Dickson in Mother Courage and Her Children Credit: Anthony Robling

Given that Brecht’s endlessly popular Mother Courage deals with the hardships of war and forced migration as suffered by a destitute populace abused by a parasitic managerial class prolonging conflict for personal gain, it seems churlish to complain of slightly tired legs or poor sightlines. But over the course of two and a half hours, the numbness of the legs and craning of the neck are not outweighed by the action in a dutiful, well-performed but often unclear production.

Red Ladder’s ambitious fiftieth anniversary show is set in a non-theatre location, in the dusty basement underneath a run-down electrical wholesale store. The crowd is ushered down and onwards by a welcoming crowd of community chorus members, through a world of brick and shadow. Courage’s famous cart plays a large role as the storehouse for props, the main backdrop to the action and the constant companion as we trudge round this world.

I say ‘non-theatre’ advisedly, as this does not really feel like a site-specific production. We are urged onwards, following the cart and its dwindling inhabitants around the space, and this feels completely fitting to the play. But the brick backdrops are not sufficiently differentiated to provide variety or clarity.

Perhaps this is a point which director Rod Dixon and designer Sara Perks wanted to press home: the relentlessness of war provides no respite or distinctiveness. But at times, such as in the climax outside (and atop) the peasants’ hut, the stakes are muddied by this lack of a sense of place. Moments which are grippingly tense—or fascinatingly tangled—in Brecht’s text suffer from the lack of clear purpose, with places and characters which feel set adrift from any well-established dynamics.

So these characters, like the locations, drift in and out, without often an immediate sense of who relates to whom and in what ways. The performers are splendid though, and some well-placed and comic mask work enables us to differentiate between soldiers of various classes. T J Holmes stands out as a nervy, wide-eyed Chaplain as well as in some of the most humorous double-act segments with equally impressive Luke Dickson.

Bea Webster is movingly hard-to-read as the voiceless Kattrin, with Kathleen Yore doing fine work as the General, though her later turn as the promiscuous Yvette suffers from the aforementioned suddenness of her appearance: how she relates to Courage and the entourage is not fully explored.

Levi Payne is headstrong son-turned-soldier Eilif, and Matthew Lewney completes the Courage children as wide-eyed Swiss Cheese. Both also double well in this versatile cast. Adding to this is Becky Owen, whose most noteworthy appearances are to announce the forthcoming action in sung interludes: here she demonstrates beautiful clarity of voice with a mightily impressive range. And Becky Barry provides BSL interpretation as well as a well-characterised, comically squawking masked Quartermaster.

Of course, the title role is crucial to the enduring appeal of the play. Pauline McLynn brings a fitting inscrutability to the part, embodying the wily, implacable resilience of the roach-like survivor. Her impassivity in the face of her children’s deaths is not quite the gut-punch it might be, but again I’d suggest that this is through often difficult sightlines and a lack of clarity to the stage groupings rather than any lack in the cast.

Lee Hall’s translation is pleasingly colloquial and smooth, though the humour does tend to rely, ultimately, on the timely sprinkling of swearwords; some of Brecht’s blacker ironies are well-rendered, though. And Boff Whalley’s beautifully harmonised music lifts the production as well, particularly with the skilled multi-instrumentalism of T J Holmes and the aforementioned beautiful singing of Becky Owen and the cast.

Students (or, more to the point, teachers) seeking an atmospheric example of a production of this curriculum-friendly text will get something from this, but ultimately I’d hoped for a more urgently politicised piece—a more clear-sighted staging—to celebrate fifty years of a theatre dedicated to raising marginalised voices.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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