Courage And Her Children
Southwark Playhouse Autumn 2017
Bertolt Brecht had an extraordinary inspiration in writing his anti-war masterpiece. Instead of showing war's effect on an innocent victim he chose a corrupt and imperfect figure, a collaborator in her own destruction, to show that no one is safe.
Mother Courage is a war profiteer of the lowest order, a camp-following pedlar buying cheap from one desperate soldier and selling almost as cheap to another.
Her only goals are to survive and to keep her grown children safe. She barely achieves one end, but only at the cost of the other and of what scraps remain of her dignity and her soul.
This is all communicated in Hannah Chissick's new production, but not as clearly or as powerfully as it should, leaving this Mother Courage a limited success.
Even allowing for the restrictions of budget and resources that inevitably reduce the play's epic size and heroic scope, there are errors and misjudgements that can only be blamed on the director.
The play is performed in transverse, with two banks of audience seats facing each other across a narrow stage, and on a raised second playing area above and behind one side.
This means that whole sequences are done behind the backs of half the audience, while those scenes played between both levels leave the other half seeing only the backs of the onstage actors. (The entire Solomon Song, for example, is performed to only half the audience.)
Director Chissick hasn't found a consistent and effective way to integrate Brecht's half-presentational songs – in several cases a character merely says 'I'm now going to sing a song relevant to this moment' and does so – so too few of them work, despite attractive new music by Duke Special.
Staging choices also mean that Courage's goods wagon is too small to indicate either her spiritual burden or the wax and wane of her fortunes. And in a scene that is potentially the play's emotional climax, her daughter Kattrin's suicidal rooftop banging on a drum to alert a village to an attack is reduced to a tambourine on a small stepladder.
The whole Kattrin scene is clumsily staged, with actors looking like they've never been told where to stand. And through the play the recurring dark irony that Courage loses each of her children while distracted by some piece of petty bargaining is obscured in the staging rather than underlined.
As Courage Josie Lawrence conveys the woman's angry determination impressively, but is less successful with her quieter and sadder moments. She plays her too young to suggest the never-ending horror of war or, on a more literal level, to believably be mother to the three adult children.
Lawrence's singing voice is thin and in many cases simply inaudible, her strongest moment being the first-act-climaxing Song Of The Great Capitulation, which she can act with passion rather than sing.
The play's episodic structure give few others in the cast much opportunity to register. Ben Fox as the Cook and David Shelley as the Chaplain offer solid support but neither really makes you believe they're in the middle of a never-ending war.
The strengths of this Mother Courage come almost entirely from the text and from the best parts of Josie Lawrence's performance, with most of the rest either contributing little or getting in the way.
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Review - Mother Courage - Southwark Playhouse 2017