Mother Courage and her Children
Bertolt Brecht, translated by Tony Kushner, music by Greg Palmer
Library Theatre Company
The Lowry, Salford
Mother Courage pulling her shabby cart with her dwindling number of children is an iconic image of twentieth century theatre, and one that artistic director Chris Honer was keen to bring to his last full year at the Library with the additional space the Quays Theatre provides over their old basement in Central Library.
We first see Courage with her three children Eilif, Swiss Cheese and mute Kattrin, all from different fathers, making their living from buying and selling various goods around the battlefields of the Thirty Years War.
Gradually she loses all three of her children to the war that provides her only source of income; peace would ruin her. That isn't a spoiler as electronic message boards give away the ending of each scene before it begins. The point is not what happens but how it happens and how it could have been different.
Like all of Brecht's plays, Mother Courage is a series of episodes rather than a joined-up narrative, each of which revolves around a significant decision by the principal character. Everything that happens is is shown to be a result of conscious decisions and not inevitable. Despite the wartime setting, Brecht's main message, as always, is about class struggle and the exploitation of those at the bottom by everyone above them. The war intensifies the struggle but is also shown to be just another way of making a profit.
Brecht was well aware that his later Schaustücke or "theatre plays" could be picked up by a director and performed just like any other script, ignoring his ideas and techniques, which was why he left extensive notes and photographs—not for other directors to copy slavishly but to use as a springboard for their own productions.
Chris Honer's production largely treats the play like any other script. There are no sudden changes of style to wake the audience up and get them to think. There is no great attention to detail in some of the everyday actions, many of which are rushed and unconvincing. The visual narrative isn't as vibrant and clear as it could be (Brecht famously stated that the story should be clear even to an audience on the other side of a glass wall who couldn't hear the words). Everything is forced to flow from one scene to the next, with the songs treated not so differently from those in a musical.
That isn't to say this is all bad by any means. The messages are still there, if not quite so pointed, and Brecht's humour shines through via Tony Kushner's often quite coarse translation. In fact some scenes are very funny, very enjoyable, just as they should be, even though none ends happily.
Eve Polycarpou takes on the huge and daunting title role and gives a very solid, sure-footed performance. I believe she could have been pushed further in both the intensity and the comedy of the role, but what she does she does very well. Natalie Grady as prostitute Yvette gets the measure of the humour spot on in a very strong performance. Great performances also from Rob Compton, Kenny Thompson and Amelia Donkor as children Eilif, Swiss Cheese and Kattrin, Paul Barnhill as the Cook and Johnson Willis as the Chaplain.
Greg Palmer's new music has a similar German cabaret ring to it as that of some of Brecht's own collaborators such as Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler so fits in well, but there are also some that depart sharply from this style but which work equally well. Judith Croft's sparse design with movable pieces of burnt-out building looks good, but while Courage's cart itself looks fine its wheels are tiny and not at all convincing.
This adds up to a production that isn't entirely Brecht but has some good moments. While no regional theatre company has the luxury of Brecht's extended rehearsal periods, the lack of those extra details that Brecht documented so well means that you feel every minute of the three hours plus of this production.
As governments are still accused of, to paraphrase Brecht, using war as business by other means—"oil" and "the Gulf" ring a bell?—perhaps there is still a place for the questions raised by Mother Courage if the message and the entertainment are given equal prominence.
Reviewer: David Chadderton