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Mother Courage at Southwark Playhouse
Image Credit: Josie Lawrence as Mother Courage (c) Scott Rylander

Mother Courage at Southwark Playhouse

19 November 2017 Charlie Powell

The Southwark Playhouse stages Tony Kushner’s translation of Mother Courage , one of the most acclaimed plays of the 20th century. Director Hannah Chissick’s rendering of the play, written in direct opposition to Nazism after the 1939 invasion of Poland, is vivid and vital despite the decades that have passed.

Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children transposes the immediacies of the Second World War four centuries into the past, to the catastrophically destructive Thirty Years war. This analogy at first seems to give the play a timeless air, but Chissick’s production keeps true to Brechtian practice and reminds us that where the play is truly set is in the here and now.
According to the principles of Epic (or Dialectical) theatre, drama should be politically engaged in the present, and should prompt questions and challenges rather than provide catharsis. Mother Courage is a story on a grand scale of time and geography, but centres on a few key roles. Mother Courage (played by comedian and actor Josie Lawrence) is a merchant or “canteen woman” with the Swedish army, who seeks to profit from the war while keeping her children safe. With each of its twelve scenes representing twelve years, the play follows the course of the war, and of the lives of each member of the Courage family. The ensemble plays multiple roles including recruiting officers, soldiers, elderly civilians and young families, generals and sex workers, a cook and a clergyman.
This production balances the distance between 1939 and today by focusing on the play’s content, with very little superfluous lighting or sound work. The costumes are used simply, as a way of communicating basic information about character. The audience is asked politely to turn off mobile phones “because it’s spring 1636”, and then the play begins.
One of the most interesting elements of the staging are the entrances and exits at either end of the promenade stage. The whole room seems to have been constructed from wire fencing and canvas; the doors are made from two large sections of canvas lifted up drawbridge-like on ropes pulled by members of the ensemble. This is part of one of the most interesting visual aspects of the show - the visibility of the mechanics of theatre. We see the actors operating the doors, we often see them changing costumes before playing a different role. Before the show, one of the actors, in a blue polo shirt that makes him look ambiguously like a school student or a stagehand, plays with toy soldiers. During the interval, he drives a small remote control model of Mother Courage’s wagon around the stage, beatboxing sound effects.

Josie Lawrence, Julian Moore-Cook and Jake Phillips Head (c) Scott Rylander
The music of this production is performed collaboratively by the entire ensemble at points; sometimes only a couple of guitars and an accordion accompany the character singing, but at other times the whole cast comes together as a backup chorus, the entire balcony level lined with guitars strumming just out of time. The overall feel is one of authentic music being performed in the moment by real people, and the impact is given not to the fluency of the music but to the intention and feeling of the words and expression.
Brecht’s intention for Mother Courage as a character is that she is not a noble protagonist. Yet while she is clearly a conniving and often shallow profiteer, her undeniable suffering at many points in the drama give a tragic streak to the role. Though the Epic structure moves the story from place to place to show the effects of war as structures without attachment to specific people, the omnipresence of her wagon and her overall centrality is in stark contrast to the instability of almost everything else. Brecht complained that the Berlin audience of the second production of the play focussed too much on her suffering and not enough on her faults - the fact that we can rely on her to pick up the wagon again and again is almost comforting, even as we are shown the connection between profiteering and conflict. This production allows some comfort, and plenty of comedy, but also contains moments of harrowing insight.

Josie Lawrence and Phoebe Vigo (c) Scott Rylander

Showing many sides to the destruction, waste, and injustice of war, Mother Courage is famous as an anti-war play. This may be too simple a label. From scene to scene, ordinary people are shown waging and reacting to war: the general bestowing the luxury of wine on his inferiors, the casual corruption of petty officers, the murder of livestock by zealous or greedy soldiers, the fear of townsfolk facing occupation. And Mother Courage’s incessant bargaining, negotiating and exchanging. To call a play anti-war suggests it eschews war. Mother Courage and Her Children takes it as read, and incorporates it. Nor does it espouse that peace alone makes the world especially better than during wartime. At the outset of a war very few individuals had the power to stop, Brecht could have chosen to write a play about Versailles, or the Weimar republic, about national movements and leaders drawing up treaties and breaking them, but he wrote about a profiteering canteen lady and her children. It is, fundamentally, a war play.
Mother Courage and Her Children is at the Southwark Playhouse until 9 Dec, 2017. Tickets from £16.

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