Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children is given a safe and very competent revival at The Southwark Playhouse. Tony Kushner’s translation focuses well on the playwright’s intentions to highlight the horrors of war. Through the narrative of Mother Courage’s journeys around Europe during the Thirty Years’ war (1618-1648) we are invited to explore not just the atrocities of conflict but also the possibilities. For Mother Courage they are exploitative; for her son Eilif they are the misguided seeking out honour and glory; for some others the chance to seize power.
There are some fine performances in this production.
In another fine performance, Phoebe Vigor as Kattrin encapsulates the frustration and desperation of war. Her versatility is demonstrated in contrasting scenes; from mimicking a prostitute in red shoes to beating a drum to save a town from the enemy. As a mute her attempts at communicating are compelling and passionate; the sounds strangulated but strangely beautiful and hopeful.
Ben Fox as the cook and Laura Checkley as Yvette the prostitute provide much comedy through their interplay with Mother Courage. These exchanges serve to draw out her the selfishness and her unsavoury motivations.
Overall the design elements of this production are successful and while Brecht did not approve of special effects this production could have done with a few more. Mother Courage’s song in cabaret style with the surprise addition of red lighting caused a clearly discernible sigh of approval from the audience. Elsewhere silhouettes, though used rather sparingly, provided a refreshing visual change to the deliberate dreariness of the wartime setting. Live music and songs succeeded in affecting the mood and flow of the production demanded by the epic structure.
Director Hannah Chisssick uses traverse staging, which has the advantage of drawing the audience closely into the detail of the acting. However, this choice limited the possibilities of using multi-media devices to enhance the narration, which failed to achieve any impact. There was a further limitation to the choice of using traverse staging. Only one side of the audience could see the upper balcony where the live band was situated and some of the essential dialogue was lost.
This production was an enjoyable experience, keeping an energetic pace going especially in the second half. With such a strong cast one wonders whether a more experimental approach might have highlighted the issues more effectively.