Mother Courage and Her Children - A Motherf*cking Theatrical Trip
It’s 2080 and the world is still no place for two women on their own. Mother Courage and Her Children is a story of unrelenting action, omnipresent political undertones, and a woman who adapts to survive - whatever the cost.
Set in a dystopian war-ridden future, Amy Hodge’s production of Mother Courage is an assault on the senses. Familiar, colloquial, quintessentially Mancunian banter gives way to punk rock outbursts of neon-lit rap. This mixing bowl of narrative styles certainly keeps an audience on their toes! As Brecht intended, these disruptive shifts deny emotional progression or immersion for the most part. This is far from a cathartic, escapist night at the theatre!
In true Brechtian style, the production strings together multiple stand-alone scenes. Bookended with a direct address of the argument, each scene forms an enticing insight into a world that’s at once utterly alien and uncannily familiar. The production is a mosaic of wonderfully-formed short stories - but the stop-start pace won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. This disjointed narrative structure plays a major part in preventing a theatrical crescendo, yet each scene can be applauded as a well-crafted micro-play in itself.
The musical interludes throughout similarly break the fourth wall in a rather jarring way. “Hit it Nick” and the cast spring into absurd action. This production certainly embraces the fun to be had in even the most harrowing of stories. Yet, they marry this musical cabaret with wartime lullabies of a much more familiar ilk, stirring a rare emotional response.
Connecting all the mayhem is Mother Courage’s dilapidated ice cream van. As the defining piece of set, the van transitions from overflowing abundance, to a haunting, empty shell. It is a perfectly designed image for Mother Courage’s avatar - she is the captain that must go down with her ship.
Julie Hesmondhalgh’s performance as the eponymous matriarch-cum-anti-hero avoids any traditional sense of heroism. She’s at once approachable and reproachful, a maternal provider living on a foundation of ‘everyman for themselves’. As Courage denies herself emotional release, Hesmondhalgh is charged with delivering a complex subtext. In a celebration of sarcasm, Hesmondhalgh’s title performance is strong, stoic and, ultimately, sympathetic. As she closes the show with Frankenstein-esque desperation, we are drawn to pity the arms-dealing pimp who has ruthlessly straddled the action throughout.
Whilst the men disappear to the battlefields, the female cast members shine in some challenging roles. Forced to sell homemade weapons, their bodies and anything they can get their hands on, three women uphold the play’s capitalist comment as they adapt to survive. Hedydd Dylan, as Yvette, commands our sympathy even whilst feigning pride. As wartime “erodes innocence” she becomes every bit as fierce as her wild costumes.
Meanwhile, Rose Ayling-Ellis pours forth with feeling, without saying a word. Trying to make herself heard amongst the bolshy verbal banter, Ayling-Ellis delivers some of the night’s strongest raw emotions. Her guttural wailing momentarily transforms this punky, rebellious play into a Shakespearean tragedy: Kattrin is the very image of poor, ravaged Lavinia, whilst her mother tries desperately to regain control.
Seemingly divorced from a traditional ‘mother’ figure, Mother Courage worships the brutality of capitalist commandments to provide for her wayward children in the only way she knows how. Playwright, Anna Jordan, dubs “MC" as ‘a feminist hero, a women with power in a man’s world’. But this play circumvents any didactic celebration of feminism. Ultimately, Mother Courage and Her Children blasts an audience with snapshots of morally corrupt characters and leaves us to make up our own minds.
Be warned: you may not be sure exactly how to feel when the lights rise for the final time. This new adaptation of Brecht’s masterpiece mobilises a dystopian future to political ends. Yet, as the neon-lit chaos distracts from and dilutes the moral service, the audience must navigate their own conclusion.
Mother Courage and Her Children plays at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, until 2nd March. Visit the RX website for tickets and more information.
Title image by Richard Davenport/The Other Richard