Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Review Mother Courage And Her Children

Mother Courage And Her Children
By Bertolt Brecht
Translated by Tony Kushner
Music By Duke Special

Peace In Our Time?

Thirty years is a long time in politics and showbusiness, but it's much, much longer and far more cutthroat and arbitrary for citizens and subjects having to cope with the on-off Thirty Years War (1618-1648).

Hannah Chissick now directs Tony Kushner's translation of Bertolt Brecht's play Mother Courage And Her Children with music by Duke Special, first seen in the National Theatre's production eight years ago.

The play spans the war that ravaged the European continent with Josie Lawrence in the main role in a traverse staging in transformed warehouse, Southwark Playhouse.

The audience enters the battlefield through a trench-like tunnel with grimy, grey-white plastic tarpaulin hanging from metal poles. 

First the good points - Josie Lawrence is magnificent, a force of nature with a tremulous gleam in her eye, determined to survive, run a business and hold together her children, no matter what.

Her singing and acting experience also gives her the voice, along with some of the other theatre veterans in the cast, to negotiate an acoustically difficult space.

In this production, it is a play of two halves with the decision to adopt regional accents in the first act making some of the actors with lighter voices almost unintelligible in a space where there needs to be perfect pitch to be heard.

The uneven nature of the first act  may lose a few camp followers in the audience which would be a shame because post-interval the accents are suddenly discarded and the ensemble comes together in a far more heartfelt and stinging second act. The problematic acoustics do not quite go away but they become far less of a problem.

Besides Lawrence's Mother, the most consistent performances of the night come from Julian Moore-Clark as her terminally honest and loyal son, Swiss  Cheese,  David Shelley as the chaplain and Ben Fox as the Dutch cook.

For those who have not grown up with the German history school syllabus of 1939 and the religious and political battles, Mother Courage And Her Children needs to hit the correct increasingly frantic notes along the route of Anna's picaresque travels with her increasingly disintegrating family.

This only comes about in the second half  when the seemingly heroic but self-destructive act of Phoebe Vigor's Kattrin is truly powerful and the lighting of Robbie Butler comes into its own. The decision to ally the play with imagery and sounds from the First and Second World Wars is also a wise one.

After all, Brecht and other citizens had experienced an on-off battle to survive economically in Germany from the First World War onwards which became something else after 1933 and the seizure of Germany by the National Socialists.

Barney George's design keeps it simple, tarpaulin and metal poles with the cart dragged by Mother Courage able to move across the space.

However the decision to have an upper balcony on one side may have seemed logical, putting the (temporary) victors and actor musicians on high. But it means in addition to acoustic irritations, one half of the audience might feel discriminated against, having to continually turn around to see the action.

So this is a production which eventually finds its balance in an unhinged world. Josie Lawrence and a few others are tremendous but it needed far tighter direction to keep other members of the cast on course in the first act. It's an upper range amber light.   

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