Mother Courage and her Children – Review – Albion Electric Warehouse, Leeds
By Eve Luddington, October 2018
What would persuade you to spend a couple of hours in a shabby, cold and dusty warehouse basement in south Leeds? Hopefully, Red Ladder’s latest offering.
When Red Ladder formed 50 years ago, radical left-wing theatre companies were commonplace. Now, Red Ladder is one of very few such companies, and it’s based in Leeds. Usually, it presents new writing but, for its 50th birthday production, it’s chosen one of the greatest ever anti-war plays, Mother Courage and her Children, written by Bertolt Brecht in 1939.
Avoiding the specifics of Hitler’s regime, Brecht set the play during the 17th century European 30 Year religious war; his aim, to involve audiences in the issue of all war and its corruptive power over ordinary people.
Lee Hall (of Billy Elliot fame), has written a highly accessible translation, darkly funny and fizzing with pointed one-liners. Scenes, and their content, are introduced and commented on in song, to memorable tunes composed for this production by Boff Whalley.
Mother Courage tries to exploit war. She, her junk-filled wagon and her three children go anywhere there’s trade, selling booze, belts and bullets to anyone who will pay. Anything to survive. In Red Ladder’s imaginatively staged production, cleverly directed by Rod Dixon, we literally follow her dirty path. Before the performance begins, we’re all asked to find a viewing position for each scene which doesn’t block sightlines for others.
It’s a 12-year journey for Mother Courage, a 3-hour experience for the audience who squat on benches or stand to watch the action. A pragmatic note of warning to people who have mobility issues; there’s wheelchair access but, otherwise, everyone has to walk and stand for part of the play.
“Immersed in the performance”
One scene over, a curtain is whipped aside and we’re ushered expertly to the next by members of Red Ladder’s community chorus, who also play those the war has displaced. Often, we’re listening to sounds of warfare. We’re immersed in the performance but, as Brecht intended, always aware that we’re watching theatre.
Mother Courage is no hero. She haggles and schemes to protect her livelihood, bargaining hard and long to make her living, so hard and so long that she only agrees to pay the price soldiers demand for one son’s life when it’s too late to save him. The other son joins up and is glorified by his fellow soldiers for murdering civilians, then shot for the same act during a brief interlude of peace – even as his mother is decrying that peace because it’s bad for trade. By the end of the story, her third child, a mute daughter, is dead too – and Mother Courage is left to haul her cart alone through the war.
And so the play punches home time and again the corrosive effects of war on ordinary people and their morals. In this warehouse with modern trappings, watching characters who wear an assortment of historical and modern-day costume, I was reminded of Afghanistan and other war-torn countries, of the millions of migrants forced by conflict to flee their homes, and of the unpalatable truth that morality can be an impossible luxury for victims of war. As the cynical Chaplain who falls for Mother Courage remarks, the only ones to benefit are the powers-that-be who find reasons to make and prolong war for their own gain.
“Laughing aloud while bubbling with anger”
Brecht intended us not to empathise with his characters but to engage our minds. Red Ladder’s production fully engaged mine. The actors, most of them playing several roles, are here with an anti-war message and they communicate it forcefully, often presenting witty caricatures of people who behave despicably. I was laughing aloud while bubbling with anger at the horrors of war.
Pauline McLynn, familiar from Father Ted and Shameless, is in the title role. At this performance, I sensed some nervousness at the start but soon she gave us the gritty, sharp-witted tinker in semi-rags who is Mother Courage. She shows us effectively, too, the appalling cost of business-first. When Mother Courage denies knowledge of her dead son to save her own life, Pauline McLynn grips her daughter’s hand as if she’ll never let go, partly to control her and partly to control herself. She can’t look at the corpse. McLynn’s taut expression shows her inner fight to hide a mother’s instincts from eagle-eyed soldiers keen for the kill.
Those soldiers are in half-masks and uniforms of many armies, old and modern. They’re played very effectively as gross stereotypes who justify rape and pillage by claiming that God’s on their side. God is inevitably the chaplain’s focus too, as he flits from Protestant to Catholic garb depending how the wind blows. This supreme cynic, nevertheless touched by the horrors of war, is presented with wild-eyed energy by T.J. Holmes who’s also a mean strings player.
“Astonishingly physical and expressive”
The one character who wins from war is Yvette, rising from brassy prostitute to rich and happy army widow. Kathleen Yore has a startlingly strong presence. Her accordion playing and gutsy singing are impressive too.
Importantly, the emotional thermometer of the piece is Mother Courage’s mute daughter, Kattrin, the most evidently traumatised character. Already vulnerable, she’s then raped and disfigured by an unaccountable soldier. Bea Webster’s performance is astonishingly physical and expressive. Isolated from the world of words, she communicates in a frenzy of sign language throughout. And, in fact, all actors use signing to communicate with her. I’ve never seen signing so integrated into a production – and it’s very effective.
The final scene, with all curtains swept away to expose the expanse of the space, and the actors sandwiched between us, the onlookers, to play out the end of the story but the continuation of war, drove home the anti-war message potently.
Red Ladder’s production of Mother Courage, with its blatant condemnation of war-mongering wherever and whenever in the world, makes a strong and important contribution to the flurry of events commemorating 100 years since the end of World War. 2018 and the company’s 50th birthday will pass: this production deserves a longer airing.
Images: Ant Robling