Presenting Pulitzer Prize-winning Tony Kushner’s translation of Mother Courage and Her Children, The Southwark Playhouse sets the scene the instant we enter. As we’re directed to our seats, a young boy sits centre stage, playing out a battle with toy soldiers. It appears we’ve wandered into an army bunker, thick tarpaulin lines each side of a dusty dirt track, separating the audience into two halves. As the action moves back and forth you feel like a spectator on the sidelines (your neck may start to ache after a while but take courage, it’s worth it). With no clear stage left or right, there are no good nor evil characters, only the entry and exit of players for whom fate has a rather grim prediction in store.
German dramatist and poet Bertolt Brecht began work on Mother Courage and Her Children while exiled in Sweden, in 1939. In the mouth of the Second World War, Brecht set his politically charged “Epic theatre” piece during the arduous Thirty Years War. Ultimately profitless, and at the expense of 8 million lives, Brecht explores the human cost of war and how we are all destined to play roles within it – like it or not.
It’s Europe, Spring 1624. Two restless recruitment officers need soldiers to sacrifice. Enter Mother Courage (the inimitably charming Josie Lawrence). Standing proud atop a rickety wooden wagon, her three children pull her along. A clearly well travelled woman, we learn each child has a different father and nationality. With two strapping sons and a timid, mute daughter to support, the wagon is how Mother makes an ‘honest living’ selling goods. The clothes on her back, the wagon and her kids are all she possesses, and she appears content with her lot.
The recruitment officers instantly attempt to enlist her sons, and Mother Courage’s happy bubble is threatened. Eldest Eilif (Jake Philips Head) is hungry for the opportunity. Before Eilif makes his choice, Mother Courage desperately tries to dissuade him by offering to read one recruitment officer’s fortune. In turn, she forces each of her children to draw a paper, too. If marked with a black cross, the war will bring their death. Predictably, headstrong Eilif, her ‘simple’ second son, Swiss Cheese (Julian Moore-Cook), and wordless daughter Kattrin (Phoebe Vigor) each draw a black cross. All three doomed. Still, foolhardy youth Eilif signs up. Mother Courage knows the road ahead will be long and tough. As do we… it is a three hour show, after all!
Mother Courage represents the everyman – a businesswoman – finding a way to succeed. “Only the poor need courage,” she declares and, at first, she makes war work in her favour. Profiting on goods scarce in wartime, she cajoles The Cook (Ben Fox) into buying a scraggly chicken. She befriends prostitute Yvette (Laura Checkley) – vivaciously played for big laughs – and there are jolly scenes amongst the fear and trepidation surrounding our characters. The Chaplain (David Shelley) points out that even in wartime, there are moments of peace to be found, however short-lived.
Bringing to Mother Courage a knowing glint in her eye, beneath which lurks a snarling tigress poised to protect her young, Josie Lawrence is a triumph. She possesses a seemingly boundless energy as she switches seamlessly between an air of playful mischief to anger, then solemnity as the war rages on. Mother Courage has always found a way to haggle her way through any situation. Sadly, when she tries to barter her youngest son out of a meeting with the firing squad, she learns the hard way that not everything has a price to be debated. There follows a moving scene in which Lawrence displays an emotional range far beyond her familiar clownish guise in Whose Line Is It Anyway?. Expressing a silent, agonising scream to the heavens after being forced to deny knowledge of her son, even when thrust face-to-face with his corpse.
Still, somehow, survival instinct and love for her remaining children drives her and the wagon ever forward. As the Catholics take hold, the Protestant Chaplain hides with Mother Courage and Kattrin on the wagon, but times are set to get tougher and tougher for our players. While Lawrence shines in the titular role, supporting her is a talented 12-strong ensemble. Nearly every cast member doubles up on roles or grabs a musical instrument at some point along the journey. A highlight being the iconic ‘Song of the Great Capitulation’ to lead us bitterly into the interval in need of a stiff drink.
As the war and the second half rage on, inevitably, Mother loses each of her children (come on, they drew three crosses, it’s hardly a plot spoiler!). Left standing alone beside her empty wagon in the biting winter freeze, downtrodden, bereft, Mother still picks up the rope to continue dragging her wagon – all she has left. Solo, she stumbles slowly, stopping briefly for a poignant pause. She reaches out to hold the steadying hand of an audience member on the front row. Encouraged by this reassuring human touch, she pushes forward… Courage personified.
Mother Courage is considered to be one of the greatest anti-war plays of the 20th Century. Humanity should have learned our lesson by now, shouldn’t we? Yet, here we find ourselves, in 2017, amongst ripe fear that war is brewing once again. Fascism on the rise. Donald Trump seems to relish his role as biggest bully in the playground, finger poised over ‘the red button’. Are we really on the brink of a nuclear World War Three? It’s amid this frightful political climate that Director Hannah Chissick, moved by the plight of Syrian refugees scattered from their homeland, mothers and children lost to the desolation fighting leaves in its wake, has decided to bring Mother Courage back to the stage. If, like me, you had never seen Brecht’s masterpiece before – it’s about time.
Cast (alphabetical): Laura Checkley, Ivy Corbin, Celeste de Veazey, Rosalind Ford, Ben Fox, Jake Phillips Head, Shiv Jalota, Josie Lawrence, Julian Moore-Cook, Nuno Queimado, David Shelley, Phoebe Vigor Director: Hannah Chissick Writer: Bertolt Brecht Translation: Tony Kushner Music: Duke Special Theatre: Southwark Playhouse Duration: 185 mins (including interval) Dates: 2 Nov – 9 Dec 2017