The Mother

Bertolt Brecht, translated by Mark Ravenhill from a literal translation by Marc Funda, music by Theo Holloway and Richard Norris
Steam Industry Free Theatre
The Scoop at More London
(2011)

The Mother production photo

Bertolt Brecht is one of the 20th Century's most influential playwrights and practitioners. His work is widely produced and almost every student at school will have encountered one of his plays in some form or other. Gestus and the Verfremdungseffekt are hotly debated terms and although fundamental to his development, his Lehrstücke seldom receive an outing. Having brought Double Falsehood back into the public spotlight earlier this year, Steam Industry Free Theatre's artistic director Phil Willmott brings Brecht's The Mother to the stage in a new translation by Mark Ravenhill as part of the company's 'Dangerous Journeys' season.

Brecht's most famous mother is, of course, Mother Courage and this rare professional production of his early work allows audience members to delve into some of his latter work's progenitors. The themes that run through Brecht's many plays are all present and much stronger in his eight Lehrstücke and for Stephen Unwin, The Mother is Brecht's "most explicitly revolutionary play".

Pelagea Vlassova's son Pavel is a revolutionary in the making, committed to the cause. His mother, on the other hand, worries about little more than the quality of her soup. That is, until one day it's Parvel's turn to distribute illegal leaflets to his fellow factory workers.

Worried that her son will end up in prison, Vlassova takes his place and smuggles the leaflets inside disguised as wrapping paper for her wares. As the factory workers buy their food and tobacco, important information is disseminated. But when a man is arrested for reading the leaflet, Vlassova finds it hard to understand why. In one of Brecht's most memorable lines, she proclaims "All he did was buy a gherkin."

Vlassova's journey is immense. From failing to understand the workers' point of view she soon becomes embroiled in a fight for rights, waving the red flag, printing illegal leaflets and having to be hidden to avoid danger. Soup is no longer on the agenda as she declares war against injustice and the brutality of the exploitative and corrupt ruling classes.

In the role of the Mother, Nicky Goldie is a force to be reckoned with. Her transformation from meagre mother to revolutionary is perfectly pitched. Delivering her text in the amphitheatre setting at sunset adds great atmosphere to her emotionally charged dialogue and the audience come to feel complicit in the fight for equality and fairness.

Many of Brecht's characters revel in the grotesque and none more so than The Mother's Butcher. To him everyone is a "bastard" and Hadrian Delacey's characterisation is both gruesome and humorous.

It seems a recent trend to use electric guitars when presenting Brecht for contemporary audiences. The National Theatre's Mother Courage (2009) put them to good use and - of course although not Brecht - Wederkind's Spring Awakening also employed them in their droves. There is something about the grimy and eerie sound of a discordant note that echoes with the tone of the aforementioned work, and along with a live trumpet and saxophone present in The Mother, use is finally made for Richard Norris, who, now incorporated into the action, seemed somewhat out of place strumming his acoustic guitar on the sidelines throughout Around The World in Eighty Days.

Based on Maxim Gorky's 1906 novel Mother and first performed in 1932, Brecht's play is still a powerful portrayal of humanity in 2011. Recent events in Syria bear a striking resemblance to those depicted on stage and whereas Twitter has replaced leaflets as the mode of revolutionary dissemination, the need for change is still felt by many across the world.

Didactic in nature, Brecht once described The Mother as "a sociological experiment". The piece is certainly thought provoking, but the ultimate test of its success will be whether anyone turns up to work on Monday...

"The Mother" plays Thursdays to Sundays at 8.00pm until 4th September 2011.

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Reviewer: Simon Sladen