Mother Courage and Her Children

Bertolt Brecht
Bristol Old Vic and touring
(2004)

I have only a passing acquaintance with the works of Brecht, who like Shaw, that other village explainer of yesteryear, is an increasingly diminishing object in the theatrical rear view mirror.

So if I say, as I do, that this touring Nottingham Playhouse production is dreadful and you are moved to damn me roundly for an ignoramus and a buffoon more suited to reviewing the works of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, or Thoroughly Modern Millie, ignominy be on my head.

For me, though, this is Brecht wrecked, serious political drama reduced to cheap laughs and acted in a manner more suited to pantomime. Oh no it isn’t? Well, let me say first off that Tynan, a dilettante’s dilettante, viewed the works of Berthold as deeply serious and, according to my copy of Changing Stages, by Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright, Mother Courage is a tragedy.

You’d never know it though from this production. I don’t mean to damn the actors, who, I’m sure, are deeply committed. The set too, by Rosa Maggiora, is terrific; a curved wall of blue on to which a red sun is projected. As the lights go up and a lone figure clings to a bare tree, the scene recalls that other exploration of the vicissitudes of human existence, Waiting for Godot.

Here, the setting is updated from sixteenth century to twentieth century Africa and a country riven by civil war. A neat and fair conceit. And translator/adapter Oldaipo Agboluaje, has some smart one-liners. He also has some awful ones the most unforgivable of which is: "How longer can she depend on aid from the colonel after she has given him her own AIDS." Now I am aware of the Black Death-like swathe that AIDS is carving through Africa, but this surely is a serious matter trivially referred to and as such is, as I say, unforgivable. It is made the worse by the fact that other topical references are spewed out – David Beckham and Manchester United - the less topical - Monica Lewinski – in the same way with only one view; to get easy laughs.

I think this play underestimates its audience and, while I can’t say how it will play elsewhere, didn’t go down well here on at least one night. Carmen Munroe, as Mother Courage, (a theatre veteran best-known for her role in the Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, lent a dignity to this production it did not merit. I would also note Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as ‘the young ensemble.’

This production has garnered, as they say, plaudits, which is the thing to do with plaudits, but I have to say I found it wrongheaded and dull. I recognise the energy that goes into the performances but energy is not always, as Blake observed, eternal delight, not anyway when it is misdirected. Brecht wrote: "The finest plans have always been spoiled by the littleness of those that should carry them out. The emperors cannot do it all by themselves." Quite.

This production has also been reviewed by Steve Orme at Nottingham and David Chadderton in Manchester.

Reviewer: Pete Wood