Hailed as one of the greatest anti-war plays, Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children was written in the midst of the Second World War, as the Nazi party controlled the majority of Europe. Anna Jordan’s adaptation is set in a dystopian 2080, with Europe being divided into different grid sections, much like The Hunger Games. Warring factions fight for control of these grids. The Red and Blue armies battle for scarce resources. Mother Courage and her children travel the war zones, selling valuable food and clothing to soldiers, from the back of an ice cream van. But at what cost?
As expected, Julie Hesmondhalgh delivers an exceptional performance as Mother Courage. A veteran of the Royal Exchange Theatre, she has long been renowned as one of the greatest actors to appear on this stage. Mother Courage is certainly one of her finest characters. Hesmondhalgh perfectly captures Courage’s strength and determination with ample wit, humour and charisma. Winning over the audience, her relentless drive for survival, and to protect her children, is admirable. In this environment a woman has to be resourceful and resilient. Hesmondhalgh brilliantly renders these aspects of Courage’s character, showing her impenetrable armour.
However, this armour comes at a cost. As Courage is inept at displaying sentimentality, this can leave her character feeling cold and ruthless. In true Brechtian style, it is hard to create an emotional attachment or identify with her character until the final minutes of the play. Her armour drops when singing a lullaby to her daughter, Kattrin, and the audience is finally allowed to emotionally invest in Mother Courage. The final poignant image of the play, wherein Courage determinedly pulls her ice cream van alone, memorably signifies her desolate struggle.
Whereas I found it difficult to emotionally invest in Hesmondhalgh’s Mother Courage, this was not the case with her mute daughter Kattrin. In her Royal Exchange debut, Rose Ayling-Ellis delivers a excruciatingly harrowing and moving performance that wrenches your heart. Without dialogue, she manages to render the innocence of childhood, which is slowly eroded by war. After Kattrin suffers a traumatic experience, Ayling-Ellis crawls across the stage weeping, capturing the despair and agony of her character. This scene was particularly distressing and difficult to watch, proving that Rose Ayling-Ellis is phenomenally talented young actor.
Despite strong performances, I have several issues with Mother Courage and her Children. Most notably, the musical numbers. I understand that they are an integral part of Brecht’s original play, but I believe that they don’t particularly suit this adaptation. In the middle of a war zone that soldiers are patrolling, would you really start singing a musical number? Other than the lullaby, the songs feel like a jarring and unnecessary part of the play. This is compounded by audibility problems, as it is difficult to hear any of the lyrics through the overbearing music.
Although the Mad Max style setting worked surprisingly well, there is little evidence within the production design to indicate that this play is set 61 years in the future. Other than the script mentioning that Europe is besieged by war and divided into grids, all props, costumes and weapons are things we have today. Rather than feeling like a dystopian future, Mother Courage feels more like an alternative present.
Considering the technological advances we are making in today’s society, a dystopian 2080 would surely have more advanced warfare than soldiers wielding guns, grenades and the occasional drone strike. I understand that under war, progression grinds to a halt, but I doubt the feasibility of acquiring an ice cream van in 2080 to sell provisions. Personally, I would prefer a play set in the future to offer a glimpse of how the future appears visually. Disappointingly, Mother Courage plays it safe.
This is a production where the female performances reign, but sadly, the rest falls flat.