The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester; Wednesday 13th February, 2019
The year is 2080. Every nation that humanity created has now gone – all that remains are grid squares, huge blocks of land that are both battle ground and prize as the Red and the Blue Armies wage war in an attempt to methodically seize control of each zone.
In amongst the carnage, a mother and her three children roam the vast expanses of what was once known as Europe. Armed only with a solid sense of pragmatism and a keen eye for a business deal, Mother Courage buys and sells her way through the war, determined that neither she nor her children will will be victims of a conflict that has clearly broken the spirit of so many others.
German dramatist Bertolt Brecht originally wrote Mother Courage and Her Children in protest at the rise of fascism in his home country in the run up to what eventually erupted as the Second World War. Anna Jordan’s adaptation at the Royal Exchange picks up the strong anti-war theme and seems to take it a lot further, and not just in the unpleasant depictions of martial brutality.
The futuristic setting of this particular production – most notably the concept of countries having been replaced by a square grid – seems to initially be a confusing one. As the opening scenes are played out, there is a minute or two of bemusement as to why anyone in the future would realistically be willing to kill for some squares drawn on a map – the point, of course, is that it’s all futile, whether the lines are drawn straight or whether they have the curvature and shape that we know so well as our current, familiar world map.
And this futility seems to be reinforced further by the fact that the opposing forces are referred to as the Red and the Blue Armies – like supporters of opposing football teams perhaps. But this perhaps is exactly what war-mongering behaviour is, Anna Jordan’s near comical scene-setting yet again seems to drive home something deeper about the toxic hubris of those who lust for conflict as a way of reinforcing their own position, and those like Mother Courage who feel they can capitalise, literally, from such a terrible situation.
This is a show then that plays a long and tortuous game with the audience. Though beginning with comedic elements, particularly in some of the earlier songs, the more brutal scenes that emerge later begin to venture as far from amusing as theatre could get without becoming unbearable.
Julie Hesmondhalgh in the lead role as Mother Courage seems to come across much more as a sleazy arms dealer than she does as a doting mother fighting to protect her offspring. There’s an element of Orwellian brainwashing evident in Hesmondhalgh’s character, as if she’s gone over to the dark side, particularly when she growls in disgust at learning that the war might have ended, and thus eliminated her revenue streams. Hesmondhalgh’s performance also evokes memories of another famous, future-fearing mother: Sarah Connor in The Terminator movie franchise – the combative attitude and dogged stubbornness both come across in such similar ways.
Mother Courage and Her Children is a particularly bleak story that delivers an anti-war morality which we already know and agree upon. What gets delivered though is a slightly different angle, this is a powerful and compelling performance which exudes futility and despair – despite the content it is a beautifully dark and intriguing theatrical experience.
Photography: Richard Davenport
|Visual pleasure||Star of the show from a visual point of view has to be the amusing spectacle of Mother Courage’s van being hauled onto the stage in scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in a World’s Strongest Man contest. An old-fashioned ice-cream van no less, still with most of the Mr / Mrs Whippy decorative paraphernalia attached.||4|
|Auditory pleasure||Jim Fortune’s musical composition is beautiful – an evocative banjo- and violin-driven folk atmosphere pervades throughout, adding a agonising sense of sadness to the unpleasant scenes playing out on stage. The creative aims of the compositional work come across perfectly thanks to the quality of the delivery, literally a one-man band in the shape of Nick Pynn frantically (but expertly) setting up loops and constantly switching between instruments – which raises an interesting question as to why he did the whole thing on his own.||5|
|Architecture & Theme||Delivers all of Brecht’s original story and thus is enough to set the mind racing with all manner of moral dilemmas and what-ifs.||5|
|Artistic delivery||Very good performances from all performers though the stage seemed to be too crowded at times, some of the deeper points of the plot seemed to get diluted in the rush from one scene to another.||4|
|Overall impact||A very dark and sinister show yet punctuated throughout with (funny) jokes that seemed to make the tension worse. Definitely does tell a sad story and leaves plenty of open questions, without doubt an excellent show if you can handle the unpleasant themes.||4|
|0||Detrimental – This aspect of the performance was so bad that it made the overall experience worse|
|1||Weak – This aspect of the performance was poor|
|2||Adequate – This aspect of the performance was perfectly acceptable, though nothing special|
|3||Good – This aspect of the performance was above average, it pleased in some way|
|4||Excellent – This aspect of the performance was much better than normal, it was impressive|
|5||Awe-inspiring – This aspect of the performance was exceptional, new boundaries were pushed.|