Mother Courage and Her Children
Southwark Playhouse, 7th November 2017
Hmmm. I am torn. This was a mixed bag and no mistake.
The good stuff first. Well it is Brecht so there will always be big issues to chew on, although here the anti-war appeal that lies at the heart of the play felt curiously understated. The production does have a ramshackle design from Barney George which I was quite taken by and which seemed to capture the ravages of a long drawn out war on a society. The transverse staging and the constraining of the larger Southwark Playhouse space had some advantages, particularly when it came to observing the best of the cast. Mind you this did put paid to the Brechtian distancing effect. Hannah Chissick’s direction had some nice touches though this seemed to lack an overall coherent vision. I like the folksy song arrangements by Duke Special which are drawn from the 2009 NT production. Tony Kushner’s translation from 2006 is strong on characterisation but seems somehow to play down the “epic” nature of the action, though the production was partly responsible.
Best of all was the swaggering performance of Josie Lawrence as Mother Courage. Whilst there was a part of me that would have liked a more hard-bitten Courage to ram home the war as commercial opportunity message, her more sympathetic spirit paid dividends in the scenes with her “children”, the Chaplain and the Cook. David Shelley and Ben Fox in these latter two roles also turned in strong performances, as did Laura Checkley’s brassy Yvette and, especially Phoebe Vigor’s Kattrin. I was less convinced though by the rest of the cast whose tone seemed uncertain, notably the sons, Swiss Cheese played by Julian Moore-Cook and Eilif played by Jake Philips Head. Don’t get me wrong, the boxes were largely ticked, it just seemed to me that motivation and understanding was sometimes lacking.
This lack of conviction was ultimately why the production was only a qualified success for me. There were some powerful scenes notably when Courage disowns the corpse of Swiss Cheese, when Courage turns down the Cook’s offer to escape to Utrecht and especially at the end when Kattrin is beating the drum to warn the townspeople, but many of the other scenes have less definition, and those that do work rely too much on the sympathy generated by the performers, which risks melodrama, and which Brecht specifically wanted to eschew. This should be far more threatening and dislocating to convey the true horror and to reveal the economic and religious imperatives that underpin war, whether in the Early Modern Age or now, in the throes of Late Capitalism.
An avowedly non-specific staging also risks, as it does here, the distancing effect offered through Brecht’s setting in the Thirty Years War of the early C17 between Catholic and Protestant. We are supposed to be immersed in Brecht’s epic story but also to think long and hard about what he is telling us, and I am not sure we were fully afforded that opportunity. We are allowed to understand why Courage does what she does, because she has to to survive, but we are not supposed to like her.
The transverse staging was complicated by some early scenes which took place partially in a mezzanine which was, literally, a pain in the neck for half the audience. Music, sound and lighting worked with the staging but the lack of space constrained the pattern of movement, (to avoid problematic sightlines), which had the perverse effect of slowing the momentum at times.
My conclusion. A brave attempt which is worth seeing for Josie Lawrence’s fine, if ultimately flawed, performance and for some of the ingenuity of the creatives in trying to make this work in this space. And because it is Mother Courage and Brecht. But there have been, and there will be, more coherent and biting productions which do more to reveal the layers of Brecht’s art, passion and instruction.