REVIEW: Mother Courage and her Children, Southwark Playhouse ✭✭✭✭

Mother Courage and her Children at Southwark Playhouse
Josie Lawrence in Mother Courage

Mother Courage and Her Children
Southwark Playhouse
7 November 2017
Four stars
Book Tickets

A play about a battle-torn world teetering on the brink of total destruction might not be top of the list for escapist theatre trips this month. However, in terms of high quality theatre, Southwark Playhouse have done it again with this blunt and brutal production of Brecht’s great anti-war play. The evening gets off to a shaky start, but things really pick up once travelling merchant Anna Fierling (Josie Lawrence), nicknamed Mother Courage, arrives on the scene with her wagon and three children. Mother Courage has been following the army for a long time now, buying and selling what she can, unshakably determined to profit from the unpredictability of war, but losing everything in the process.

Mother Courage and her Children at Southwark Playhouse
David Shelley, Josie Lawrence, Julian Moore Cook and Phoebe Vigor in Mother Courage

The theatre’s Large performance space has been transformed into what strongly resembles a refugee camp, with wire fencing, tarpaulins and bare floor all around. The audience is led the long way in, directed by solemn-faced cast members in army gear and soundtracked to the noises of explosions and gunfire. Upon arriving, one of the cast is sat centre stage, playing with small toy soldiers and childishly mimicking the sounds of conflict going on around him. This suggests perhaps that what we are about to witness is, in the end, one big game of soldiers, but it also resonates later in the play. A temporary peace comes about and some of the characters long, almost nostalgically, for the war to return. War is what they know, and they’ve glamorised it in their own heads, convincing themselves that war is more desirable, and profitable, than peace. As a coping mechanism, it’s arguably not the strangest.

Mother Courage and her Children at Southwark Playhouse
Julian Moore Cook and Phoebe Vigor in Mother Courage.

But ultimately it’s a somewhat muddled setting. Tony Kushner’s translation, last seen at The National Theatre, makes reference to the Thirty Years War, placing the action firmly in the seventeenth century, but the design aspects suggest something a lot more modern. Courage and her three children are all costumed from widely different eras and locations, and the army uniforms make frequent use of modern camouflage patterns. It’s a production that can’t really decide where it wants to stand in history and seems a little confused for it.

It’s heavy going stuff thematically too. Brecht originally wrote Mother Courage in 1941 after fleeing his native Germany, witnessing his homeland succumb to fascist rule, and countless Germans forced to leave. These topics, as well as all the typical Brechtian devices, such as narration and breaking of the fourth wall, remain prevalent in Kushner’s script. At nearly three hours long, it also remains faithful to Brecht’s penchant for lengthy plays.

Mother Courage and her Children at Southwark Playhouse
Jake Phillips Head in Mother Courage

The cast are an oddly mixed bag in terms of ability, but the good among them are excellent. Stand out performances include Jake Phillips Head as Courage’s blood-thirsty favoured son Eilif, Ivy Corbin as the loud and ribald army general and Ben Fox as the army’s earthy cook. Laura Checkley tackles both the comedic and tragic aspects of prostitute Yvette with great demonstrable talent.

Mother Courage and her Children at Southwark Playhouse
Josie Lawrence in Mother Courage

As the titular Courage, Josie Lawrence more than justifies her place at the forefront of the plays advertising. As someone who initially made her name in comedy, she excels in this challenging dramatic role, rightfully earning a place on the list of acting greats that have taken it on before. Her Mother Courage is brilliantly multi-faceted, forever torn between her beloved children, the prospect of making a profit and simply just surviving, whatever the cost. She draws all the humour from the piece, as expected, but it’s the serious stuff that is the most impressive. Her voice has a wonderful rich quality to it, with a great range of expression, and her gradual deterioration from the fast-talking, wise-cracking saleswoman we first meet, to the broken wretch she becomes is subtly and then devastatingly executed. Every time something terrible happens to her she resolutely, unbelievably gets back up again and keeps going. At the heart of the performance is someone whose desperate need for self-preservation, and the the need to second guess and be one step ahead of everyone else around her is her own downfall.

Nearly all the cast double as musicians for Duke Special’s rough diamond songs, and there’s an inventive, if slightly overworked, use of beatbox as audio effects at the top of each act.

With it’s eerie echoes of today’s top news stories, Mother Courage and her Children makes for some thought-provoking viewing. Add in a show-stealing performance from Lawrence, and this could be essential theatre viewing for November.

Until 9 December 2017


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