Mother Courage And Her Children
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester ★★★✩✩
BRECHT’S bloody Mother Courage And Her Children premiered in 1941, a searing critique of the grubby business of war set in 17th century Europe. But this fascinating version from Anna Jordan is transposed to a future ravaged by a pointless ongoing battle.
Mother Courage’s famous cart, from which she hawks her wares to whichever side will have them, is now a beaten-up ice-cream van and the dystopian atmosphere somewhere between The Handmaid’s Tale and The Road.
The 2080 setting just about works. Jordan doesn’t have anything groundbreakingly new to tease out but the caustic language and fast pacing lend black comedy to a play that can sometimes be a grim slog.
Julie Hesmondhalgh plays Mother Courage with a glint in her steely gaze, ably supported by Kevin McMonagle as the amiable Minister. ‘God? It’s a nice idea,’ he says, pessimistically.
Rose Ayling-Ellis is impressive as Mother Courage’s tragic, mute daughter, Kattrin. And she has to be because it’s Kattrin’s heavily signposted death — or moreover, how Mother Courage reacts to it by walking away and leaving her to be buried by someone else — that is key to how we should feel about the play.
Brecht believed Mother Courage wasn’t sympathetic given she’s a willing war ‘entrepreneur’.
Hesmondhalgh’s performance understands this but still makes her likeable, partly thanks to her quick wit.
Whether the play offers more than the obvious ‘war is a huge money-making machine’ is a moot point — in fact, the message is a bit ham-fisted but it’s engaging while it lasts.