"Desperate measures for desperate times"
by Tim Mottershead on 19/02/19

‘Mother Courage and Her Children’ by Bertolt Brecht, is currently showing at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, in a co-production with Headlong. Amy Hodge directs Anna Jordan's new adaptation that, to quote the publicity, “brings Brecht’s universally celebrated classic bang up to date”.

Essentially, this means that Brecht’s original background of the Thirty Years War of the 17th century, has transmogrified into a never-ending war in a futuristic Europe of the 2080s. This will resonate with theatre-goers familiar with, say, Eugène Ionesco; readers of Orwellian fiction; or film buffs well versed in a legion of post-apocalyptic stories. The other chief modernising technique (that which euphemistically used to be called ‘industrial language’) fell rather flat, and indeed seemed rather dated: we’ve heard it all before, and it has therefore lost any possible shock value.

In more detail, Europe is continent without countries, but certainly with ‘borders’, in the form of a grid, with opposing red and blue armies fighting for territorial advantage. Enter Mother Courage and company. In fact, her entourage consists of her children (a sort of variation on the ‘bruvvers with diff’rent muvvers’ theme), whilst Mother Courage herself is a sort of spiv, who, in the usual meaning of the term, is a person able to supply sought-after luxury items in lean times, but in this case is able to supply essentials in even leaner times.

But to sell to whom? - a question which becomes pertinent, as it soon transpires that the most lucrative commodity is arms. And does the whom matter, if your priority is to provide for your family? This, and other related issues, are the uncomfortable questions Brecht (and Jordan) make the audience ask themselves, rather than present characters we are expected to empathise with.

Mother Courage is portrayed by Julie Hesmondhalgh, with Rose Ayling-Ellis, Simeon Blake-Hall, Conor Glean as her children. Guy Rhys played the chef, with Kevin Mcmonagle as the army padre. Hedydd Dylan, Colm Gormley, Tachia Newall completed the cast in a variety of roles.

If the foregoing gives the impression of something rather stodgy, it is actually clearly delineated into 11 scenes, which mark the passage of time of the ongoing war. And the bread is further leavened by a liberal use of humour, and hilarity; and also by the music composed by Jim Fortune. It is performed live by Nick Pynn on a variety of instruments including fiddle, guitar, bowed saw…and with extensive use of tape loops makes for an atmospheric soundscape, underpinning several songs including a rousing chorus for the ensemble.

The production continues until 2nd March.

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