This is a notable revival of Mother Courage, above all for the layered, raucous, still sensitive and anguished performance of Josie Lawrence at its centre, but also for the fine ensemble values of the production. Not all the director’s decisions are either wise or successful, but in a bigger space a lot of those issues would resolve themselves. For these reasons it is to be hoped the wagon will find a way of rolling into the centre of town, which will then release fresh riches of interpretation and testing of these perennially important themes.
In the great sequence of plays that span the war years and his exile in America, Bertolt Brecht wrote more openly and inclusively than he later claimed. Though this play can be fitted into the ideological agenda of the Berliner Ensemble it is so artfully and generously conceived that in fact it can take any number of interpretations and directorial interventions and lose none of its peerless vitality and capacity to move and shock.
Written at the start of the war but only performed once he was back in the ruins of Germany in 1949, the choice of a location within the Thirty Years’ War is a deliberate and brilliant distancing effect which forces us to think about the meaning of the play outside of any specific contemporary conflict.
Part of the reason is that so far from being an anti-war play, a fairly meaningless category anyway, this is simply a remorselessly honest play about war, that accepts the dehumanising role of warfare on all participants, while not shying away from the fact that life carries on in wartime, and that some people prosper by and during it – that the consequences of war, while always pitiless, may still, in a crude reductive way, be advantageous to many, especially in commercial terms.
All angles are considered – innocent victims, chancers, amiable rogues, tarts with a heart, displaced priests, preposterous authority figures, wily beggars, soldiers, dim and canny, all have more than walk-on parts. Brecht’s play comes to us in Tony Kushner’s recent translation provided for the memorable production starring Fiona Shaw in 2009. It has plenty of pithy memorable one-liners and no shortage of naturalistic profanity.
This twelve strong, mostly young, cast has great vitality and every opportunity is taken to create a whirl of physical activity to keep up the pace. Things flag a bit in the second half, but this is partly owing to a wobble in the play, which at this point, for all its greatness, begins to explore once more themes and variations already considered earlier in the evening.
Hannah Chissick’s production is admirably thought-through, and though it is a long evening at over three hours, for the greater part it is a wholly absorbing roller-coaster experience
When a great actor refracts these contradictions through an integrated performance the deadly, ever-shifting, dialectic of survival can be breath-taking to watch, and it is certainly so here. The key to the success of Josie Lawrence’s performance is that Courage always retains vestiges of warmth and humour that help to complicate her remorseless and blinkered focus on business opportunities.
She is a life-force that only ebbs away slowly under the assault of wave after wave of crushing loss. Most of the time she retains her spirit and determination and wry slow-burning rage at the world even as the consequences of her poor judgements of people accumulate around her. The most important scene of all, where she refuses to pay the full ransom for her son so as to preserve enough for future trading, must appal and win sympathy at the same time. Lawrence is a picture of both calculation and frozen grief here in a supremely dramatic moment, which marks the turning point in the action.
Of course many of the positions she gets into and choices she has to make are impossible non-choices that are intended by Brecht to get us to think hard about whether we could or would do any better were we her in those situations. This is ultimately where the greatness and relevance of the play resides because it forces us to look deep into ourselves in a perennially discomfiting way, emerging with no easy answers.
It is not possible to note here all the exquisitely poignant moments in this depiction but at the end, as she drags the cart away to her final solitary fate, she reaches out to hold briefly the hand of a member of the audience. It is a brilliant distillation of where she had taken us in this epic journey.
It is the paralysis and corruption caused by war that open up great opportunities to the Courages of this world. But there are plenty of other contrasting approaches set out in the careers of the other characters. There is a stand-out performance from Laura Checkley as the raucous bold-as-brass prostitute Yvette, who shows herself to be a much more successful survivor in wartime than Courage because she is a better judge of people.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum Phoebe Vigor’s poised and still portrayal of mute Kattrin is always compelling to watch, with lots of detail in every scene. One hopes someone finds her a drum that does not split in her climactic scene. No actor in that role deserves that fate.
Ben Fox as the Cook and David Shelley provide a lot of layers and general plausibility to roles that are only lightly sketched by the author, and Julian Moore-Cook and Jake Phillips Head provide contrasted cameos as Courage’s two doomed sons, the likeable but simple, Swiss Cheese, and the bright chancer, Eilif, who embodies many of his mother’s worst traits.
The staging and costumes by Barney George are a mixed bag in every sense. Costumes are essentially a kind of modern grunge, but in the garments on the wagon there are gestures towards period style as well. The set is a simple bare traverse layout with dirty tarpaulin flaps at either end lowered or raised as needed. Mostly this works well, though the use of a raised platform above one range of seating means that half of the audience is essentially unsighted for those scenes.
There is just enough room to manoeuvre the wagon on and off but these compromises suggest that this space is perhaps just a third too small to handle a play of this scale. Traverse layout worked fine here for a show such as Grand Hotel, but an epic on this scale is fractionally too demanding a test for this space.
The music is crucial in this play and the songs by Duke Special hit the right groove, possibly because he has been working recently in the style of Kurt Weill. There is an alternation of raffish charm, keening melancholy and spiky riffing that underscores the actions of the characters with accuracy, and captures and intensifies the extreme emotions engendered. Many of the cast provide accompaniments on instruments in that insouciant way that today’s multi-talented actors have.
This is a notable revival, above all for the layered, raucous, still sensitive and anguished performance of Josie Lawrence at its centre, but also for the fine ensemble values of the production. Not all the director’s decisions are either wise or successful, but in a bigger space a lot of those issues would resolve themselves.
For these reasons it is to be hoped the wagon will find a way of rolling into the centre of town, which will then release fresh riches of interpretation and testing of these perennially important themes.