Mother Courage

Royal Exchange Theatre

Written by Bertolt Brecht

Adapted by Anna Jordan

Directed by Amy Hodge

The 1939 Brecht original is a searing indictment of capitalism and an unemotional view of how individual characters respond in an unrelenting warzone. There is little space for warmth, humanity or collaboration in Mother Courage. This new production is born from writer and new mother Anna Jordan wanting to adapt the play and collaborate with Director Amy Hodge from Headlong and Julie Hesmondhalgh who had approached Sarah Frankcom about playing this iconic role. This is a collaboration of strong, feminist women and perhaps a timely reminder that we are all stronger pulling together than at war.

The outcome is a Mother Courage that is at times almost unbearably complex. Strong and sassy as hell, an immoral opportunist, a slippery wheeler/dealer, a proud, protective mother that can suffocate and infantilize her children but who cannot empathize with suffering and can only demonstrate her love through providing functional things rather than emotional warmth. The sheer complexity of her character is intentionally uncomfortable forcing the viewer to ask of themselves “What would I do in that situation? What am I capable off?”

Julie Hesmondhalgh has a huge undertaking as her natural warmth could easily feel at odds with Mother Courage. However there is no doubt that she relishes the role. At times unbearably heartless to those who get in the way of her ruthless and desperate pursuit of financial security, she is always a pragmatic Mother and the ultimate survivor. Bartering for her son and ultimately causing his death appears unforgivable yet it is a “Sophie’s Choice” as with no money and no van then the family would all perish. Though utterly distasteful in her lust for the next big deal, there is something unbearably childlike in her capacity to find a thread of good in the bleakest of circumstances. When Kattrin is raped and disfigured, her mother “comforts” her that now she is ugly no one will rape her again, while herself utterly alone and dragging the husk of the van, she reflects that bereft of all children it is lighter to pull.

Director Amy Hodge draws some strong performances from the cast and they all benefit from a wonderfully naturalistic script by Anna Jordan. However the standout performance is from the mute Kattrin played by deaf actress Rose Asling-Ellis. “Her heart is a shining star,” and that is evident as we see the world reflected through her eyes in the midst of all the misery. Her performance is just glorious, conveying more than words could possibly express in the smallest of gestures. A scene where action carries on elsewhere, she sits in the van side of stage carefully arranging her hair to cover her scars and every movement is perfection.

Anna Jordan shifts the action from the 17th century 30 year war to a dystopian future where its 2080 and both Europe and technology have vanished. This is a bleak, barren setting where the red and blue armies fight for space on a grid. With the demise of the E.U. there are no longer emotional connections to countries just a nameless land mass. Striding through this unforgiving setting is the eponymous Mother Courage with her 3 kids – 4 if you factor in her beloved van. Rough hewn cardboard sheets above the stage inform of each scene as do the disparate characters who introduce the action ensuring in true Brechtian fashion that the audience is not misled about what is about to unfold.

The set design by Joanna Scotcher works really effectively. The battered ice cream van is an inspired choice being a welcome reminder of childhood and safer times yet a sinister refuge that is also burger van, provisions cart, brothel and armoury. The course of the war is perfectly reflected as it is gradually stripped back to a skeletal husk. The oil drum effectively serves as podium for Hedydd Dylan’s insouciant whore, and later in the most beautiful scene it burns brightly as Mother Courage has her final poignant moments with Kattrin.

There are issues with this production, mainly the jarring nature of some of the musical numbers which although are intended as discordant often simply just don’t work at all. The musical number prior to Kattrin’s ruin feels really unpleasantly at odds with that scene. Overall this production of Mother Courage is meaty and full of life- which is more than can be said for the bird MC tries to flog to the army chef!!

Royal Exchange 8th Feb – 2nd March 2019

Images by Richard Davenport

Macbeth

The Lowry

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Rufus Norris

National Theatre Production

This Rufus Norris directed production of Macbeth was a sell out at the National Theatre earlier this year. The 2018/2019 National Tour commenced at The Lowry, Manchester. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, this production looks bleak, dark and intensely moody throughout. Norris clearly intends his Macbeth to attract a modern audience at home with World of Warcraft and The Waking Dead. With Macbeth on the GCSE syllabus this production aims to engage with students new to Shakespeare. So with a hopeful heart, I took my somewhat reluctant teenage daughter along as she is currently studying the play at school.

There is much to admire in this production. The Rae Smith set design is startlingly beautiful, glistening and mournful, it perfectly captures the mood of the piece. A metal bridge dominates the set, swinging back and forth across the stage like the warring factions fighting over a piece of turf land. This assists in adding dynamism to a production that at times can appear surprisingly static. The overall appearance is of a hopeless place with dank accommodation that creates a sense of a world in flux. Homes are breezeblock husks with scarce furnishings reminiscent of refugee camps which serves to drive home the ugliness of war and displacement.

Despite the gloom there are moments of vivid colour such as the highly effective splash of red in the gaudy pimp suit worn by Duncan and later by his successor Macbeth. The theme of “To beguile the time, look like the time” is used throughout this production. The celebration dinner for Macbeth comes truly alive as a generator is cranked up on the stage illuminating fairy lights and pumping out music like a street party from a scene in the Paul Abbott show Shameless.

The witches or weird sisters seem woefully underused. Gossamer clad and unworldly the three aerial performers perfectly conjure up the supernatural aspects of Macbeth. Clambering up the unnatural trees, their eerie voices are projected through the theatre bringing a real sense of magic. The supernatural themes also work well when the ghost of Banquo appears in a haze of ghostly phosphorescence.

There is an interesting emphasis on the lost children of war and conquest. Lady Macbeth, wonderfully played by Kirsty Besterman is lithe and bristling with animal energy which if not turned to suckling her young will then create a fertile ground for political ambition. As she descends into madness, her casket is opened to reveal the poignant tiny babygros of thwarted motherhood. Baby heads are worn by soldiers to warn of the impending massacre. Gruesome scenes include slaughtered babies, concealed in plastic shopping bags being casually dropped at the feet of Lady Macduff. The futility of war is perfectly summed up by the wretched shock of Macduff as he asks, “All my pretty ones? Did you say all?…In one fell swoop?”

The cast are strong and seem at home with this production, however the style in which the dialogue is delivered may be in tune with this production, but it loses a lot of the drama and poetry of the original. Equally for a production at least partially aimed at a young student audience the cuts made here may confuse. Certainly my daughter was very aware of certain speeches she was learning at school which were missing. Perhaps it is a mistake to assume that young people who can spend hours sat in front of an Xbox cannot cope with 3 hours plus in a theatre. This may be one instance where “to beguile the time, look like the time” is slightly out of time.

On tour 2018/2019

Production images Brinkhoff Mogenburg