Mother Courage and Her Children – Powerful Delivery of a Brechtian Classic

Red Ladder Theatre Company is celebrating its 50th anniversary with the production of Mother Courage.

Bertolt Brecht is one of the most studied practitioners by drama students around the country and it could be argued that ‘Mother Courage’ is his most performed play. Therefore, it takes a director a lot of their own courage to produce this play, knowing that the audience will be filled with students holding notebooks and carrying great expectations of what a Brechtian performance should look like. Yet within minutes of walking into this makeshift theatre, all expectations are forgotten as the audience are fully immersed in this outstanding and highly inventive production.

Over the past 50 years, Red Ladder has become known for producing theatre that not only entertains but also agitates its audiences, creating drama based on the radical socialist movement and showing real human struggle in the world around us. For their 50th Anniversary they decided to produce a classic play for the very first time; yet through this they were still able to keep their desire to create contemporary theatre at the heart of it ‘which speaks to the politics of the now’.

All photographs by Anthony Robling.

‘Mother Courage And Her Children’ is set in Europe during the Thirty Years Wars of 1618-1648. Spread over twelve years it follows the fortunes of feisty Anna Fierling, known as ‘Mother Courage’, who makes her living off the war as she drags her cart, and her children, after the relentless fighting. Brecht wrote this play in response to the invasion of Poland by the Nazi Party in 1939 and it shows the devastating effects of war on Europe and the ignorance of those wanting to profit from it.

With this message in mind, it is no wonder that you cannot help but watch this production and think of the current political situation and the sad fact that perhaps, despite two world wars in the past century, still nothing has been learnt. Red Ladder may have chosen a classic play but its message is still as relevant in our modern society as much as it was in 1939.

Another key focus that the director Rod Dixon wanted to highlight was the forced displacement created by war. Immigration has been a key political focal point in the last decade and Dixon clearly wanted the audience to be fully immersed in this concept throughout the performance. From the very start of the evening the audience arrives at a disused warehouse, with a makeshift bar, portable toilets and surrounded by stacks of abandoned items as if having no sense of belonging. In addition to this, the bold announcement at the start makes us feel as though we are about to be strapped into a rollercoaster ride as the entire audience is then herded down to the basement, all leading to a state of chaos and confusion.

The immersive theatre continues as we are surrounded by the sounds of cannon fire and as melancholy live music begins to be performed around us. The audience is of course directly spoken to in true Brechtian fashion and we are again rounded up and steered through the theatre with each scene being performed in a different location. We are literally following Mother Courage as she drags her cart in pursuit of the attacking militia. With the trudging of the audience, the constant marching beat of the drum and eerie singing, you can’t help but be put in mind of refugees begrudgingly being passed from place to place. A mention must be made of the designers and the composer, Boff Whalley, for a collaboration that so skilfully wraps the audience in a tense atmosphere that successfully simulates the unending war.

The cast creates a true ensemble performance and multirole with outstanding proficiency. The grotesque stereotypical roles of the soldiers are particularly effective and provide some comical relief, whilst at the same time emphasising the dire situation of Mother Courage’s children and the local peasants.  The use of sign language by the cast throughout the performance is cleverly included and in fact creates additional sympathy for Mother Courage’s daughter Kattrin, who Dixon decided to interpret as being deaf. Though feeling sympathy for a character in a Brechtian production is often rare, here it simply makes Kattrin’s situation more realistic, being an innocent victim of war.

Any performance of this play, however, depends on the portrayal of Mother Courage herself, and here Pauline McLynn has made this role entirely her own. Known most famously for her comedy role as Mrs Doyle in ‘Father Ted’, McLynn proves she is a versatile performer who utterly transfixes the audience. Her dark sense of humour, fast pace dialogue and a little added Irish flare make this a totally original performance. Though Mother Courage is indeed the protagonist of the tale, her drive to make money out of war often leaves the audience lacking sympathy for her. However, McLynn is able to show her desire to make money whilst at the same time holding an undoubted love for her children. Rarely do you come out of a Brechtian performance feeling so much sympathy for the characters!

Ultimately, this show is not for the faint-hearted. Expect no luxuries – there are no luxuries in war! Wear warm clothes and flat shoes as seating is limited, and if you are short, make sure you get to the front of each performance space. The space is tight and dark, so be prepared to stand close to people you don’t know. However, it all adds to the atmosphere and the unique audience experience.

This is a performance you will talk about for sometime after, and this is exactly what Brecht would have wanted. This play demands that you question the consequences of war, those who profit from it, those who are victims of it and those with whom responsibility lies. The Ancient Greeks believed that all citizens should attend the theatre as a civic duty, and I believe everyone, alongside those drama students with their notebooks, should watch this performance.

‘Mother Courage And Her Children’ 28th September – 20th October

Albion Electric Warehouse, South Accommodation Road, LS10 1PR

Tickets (£15/20) available from Leeds Playhouse (0113 213 7700) or via www.redladder.co.uk

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