Mother Courage and Her Childen
Contact Theatre, Manchester, and touring
Mother Courage and her Children is one of the greatest of Brecht's Schaustücke, or theatre plays. Brecht set his play during the Thirty Years War, and the central character of Courage is a travelling trader who depends on the war continuing for her livelihood but who loses all of her children to it. The play was written at the start of World War Two in 1939, but as Brecht was forced into exile, he did not direct it himself until 1949.
This new adaptation of the script by Oladipo Agboluaje relocates the story to modern-day West Africa. Instead of using a historical story to refer obliquely to a contemporary war (World War Two) it sets the story in a recent conflict in a different part of the world, perhaps referring to our own recent conflict in Iraq (although Brecht found that audiences would enjoy the story but were blind to any criticism of their own wartime behaviour). The story is very faithful to Brecht's original, but the dialogue has been completely rewritten for the new setting and only Courage has retained her original character name. Brecht would certainly have approved of the idea of updating the script to make it relevant to a modern audience rather than trying to recreate his own production as a museum piece.
The staging, however, is a bit of a hotchpotch of Brecht and anti-Brecht, applying some of his staging concepts in a half-hearted way and ignoring others. The idea of projected titles is retained, but instead of telling the audience what is going to happen, they just set the time and place, often connecting together scenes that Brecht wanted to stand alone. Brecht's titles have become announcements on a radio on set so that they, like the songs, are justified within the action of the scene instead of breaking away from it. Many people dismiss Brecht's ideas as dull theory, but when he applied them himself in practice his main concern was clarity of storytelling, and this is sometimes sacrificed in this production.
Having said that, this production is very enjoyable to watch and full of life and colour. The publicity makes much of the fact that director Josette Bushell-Mingo played Rafiki in The Lion King in London, and she has brought some of the flavour of that show to Mother Courage. The bright African costumes, the dances that link scenes and indicate the deaths of the children and the music give this production the feel of a celebration or carnival. The excellent ensemble cast play multiple roles with a great deal of energy, although the strong accents were occasionally difficult to understand. In contrast, Carmen Munroe plays Mother Courage in a rather laid-back way.
There were a number of school or college parties in the audience; if their teachers have a good knowledge of Brecht, this is a good production for them to analyse to find where Brecht's ideas were followed or departed from. For the rest of us, this is a funny, lively, thoughtful and enjoyable production of a great play.
"Mother Courage and her Children" is on tour around the UK until April.
Reviewer: David Chadderton