Fifty years after Bertolt Brecht’s death, his great anti-war play is given a riveting production by English Touring Theatre, with Diana Quick as the “hyena of the battlefield”.
During the Thirty Years War, which ravaged Europe in the 17th Century, Mother Courage and her children drag their canteen cart across the continent making a meagre living off the soldiers. Courage is always doing a deal, as her children are picked off one by one, but she can’t make a connection between her mode of living and the personal destruction it wreaks on her. Through a series of theatrical masterstrokes, Brecht illustrates the role of everyday people in war and hopes that the audience will leave the theatre questioning its own actions and decisions.
He wrote Mother Courage in 1938-9 as a warning to the German people not to get involved in the forthcoming conflict. As a Marxist, he believed that it is populations that hold the power, not leaders – Hitler couldn’t carry out his plans without the will of the people. Mother Courage participates in, and profits from, an institutionalised system of war and, as a result, loses all her children. While it was critical at that time, this message is always relevant. In a democracy, when we elect a leader, we endorse their actions (even more so when we re-elect them) and we reap the inevitable consequences of our choices.
Although some of Brecht’s techniques have become part of the everyday language of theatre, he still has the power to surprise. When his characters break into song, it gives a jolt to an audience used to naturalistic plays and slick modern musicals. Brecht’s juxtaposition of attitudes is still very effective in undercutting the audience’s expectations. Courage appears to be seeing the light when she curses the war, just after her daughter Kattrin’s wounding. Brecht follows it immediately with her declaring the opposite – “I won’t let you spoil my war for me” – although the effect was slightly lost in this production by the insertion of an interval between the two scenes.
Sounding like a Catherine Tate character much of the time, but none the worse for that, Diana Quick gives a powerful performance in the central role. We can clearly see that she cares for her children and their deaths affect her deeply but Quick never falls into the trap of playing for empathy. She’s very matter of fact about all her dealings and her feelings about the death of each child are quickly buried as the next business opportunity arises.
There are excellent performances also from Tom Georgeson as The Cook, Patrick Drury as The Chaplain, Jodie Macnee as Kattrin and Gina Issac as Yvette, the prostitute. The supporting cast play all other roles energetically and with a wide variety of accents. They perform the songs in an appropriate manner without much emphasis on beautiful singing.
There is a question of how you avoid this play being a museum piece but rather something that sends people out questioning their own actions. It’s quite a leap for a bourgeois audience today to see that it has played a part in world events. Overt references to current conflicts can be crass in the extreme and Stephen Unwin’s production avoids the obvious. There’s a lovely touch at the very end, though, which links the theme of war to the present day.
A minor quibble is the use of recorded sound, rather than a live band, but that’s understandable with a touring production. In all other respects, this has high production values, with fine costumes by Mark Bouman and lighting by Malcolm Rippeth. The music is by Matthew Scott with more than the occasional nod to Brecht’s original collaborators Paul Dessau and Kurt Weill. It’s a handsome production, played on Paul Wills’ bare stage, dominated by a map of the battle area and with a splendid ever-present cart.
The production plays at Richmond Theatre until 11 November (an appropriate date for an anti-war play) and continues its tour in Cambridge, York and Brighton.