Mother Courage (admirably played here by Josie Lawrence) has three children – two boys, and a girl who is mute – all from different fathers. The matriarch is, basically, an entrepreneur, trundling her cart around after the army during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) – one of the most destructive wars in European history – and selling all manner of items to the war-weary soldiers and anyone else who will buy.
There’s so much going on in each minute of this 185-minute play (a break at an hour and a half) that one leaves properly exhausted, not just tired. Watching an extremely empathetic performance of a vibrant, swaggering trader lose not only her three children, but her core life-force over the course of an evening will do that. Add in the richness of the philosophical and moral questioning on war, violence, family and even trade and it’s a heady mix.
Bertold Brecht’s 1939 epic piece of war theatre focuses on a merchant following the battalions of soldiers during (nominally at least) the 30 years war of the early 1600s. Mother Courage and her three children trail their cart after the army, scraping and trading and making the best of the war effort. Each of the three children will each die as a result of the war, and she by herself will descend step to step in a seemingly endless fall from grace. Played by Josie Lawrence, the performance of main character is a masterful bit of storytelling that calmly but firmly presents the disintegration of a woman thrown asunder by war.
Picking up characters along years the work covers serves to entertain at one level, and give voice to Brecht’s posed arguments and set questions about war’s nature. The recruiting sergeant, the preacher, the cook, the peasants – each used as a fulcrum to leverage another heavy thought. Mother Courage’s own decisions present the biggest shocks of all – forcing us to question what we, the audience member, would do to survive a war. Some seem easily criticizable (haggling about the price of her trading cart when the money needs to cover a payment to stop her son being killed) before the surface is scratched just after the incident, others pay off ages (years in the play) later.
Adding to the sense of dislocation, and wrong-footedness the constant questioning engenders are Barney George’s design and production decisions. Set in the 1620’s and 30s it should be clear what era we’re looking at – the cart is hand drawn and the money and prices seem old. But then the civvy clothing is at least semi-modern and the shabby military garb of the soldiers places them in very familiar modern warfare we can see on the news every night. A remote control car makes an appearance, there are some beatboxing and plastic soldiers. In amongst the levity, there’s also bizarre comedy – the fake belly of the general, the bawdy jokes from the prostitute.
One of the most powerful elements in this play that serves as a catching point to encourage thought is in the casting decisions itself. With women playing male roles, many different ethnicities and even accents there’s a conscious effort to make the narrative inclusive – no “other” to rely on to keep us safe from dealing with it.
With superb music from Duke Special, lighting (Robbie Butler), and a vivid translation from Tony Kushner (seen first at the National Theatre in 2009) the whole experience is one that not so much immerses an audience, but envelopes it.
Not so much a play to go and see, but a play to go and experience.
Mother Courage and Her Children is on at the Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, SE1 6BD until December 9th.
Times: Mon – Sat 7.30pm; Tues & Sat matinees 3pm.
Admission: £20, £16 concs. www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk