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A CurtainUp London Review
Mother Courage and Her Children

By Lizzie Loveridge

The ingredients are there -- a famous play, an innovative and exciting company and an adaptation by a young, prize winning playwright. Together they make for an evening which seems mysteriously lacking, like the disappointment of buying something through mail order when the illustration does not quite match up to the product.

The prospect of a new production from London's brilliant and physical theatre company, Shared Experience, in a new adaptation from 31 year old Lee Hall perhaps has created too high an expectation. Mother Courage and her Children by Bertolt Brecht may simply not be a vehicle best suited to the talents of the company. Still, there are two very good performances from Kathryn Hunter and Hayley Carmichael which make it worthwhile to see this production. Furthermore Nancy Meckler's direction has probably given us a play which is close to what Brecht intended.

Mother Courage is the tale of a woman for whom wars mean the opportunity to make money out of shortages and who loses her three children because she is away trying to succeed in business. The irony is that she is not a bad mother, only that business takes her attention at crucial moments. She needs the war to continue for business, "Either way, victory or defeat is a disaster for the little people." It is war which takes the life of her children. Although it shows many of the horrors of war,Mother Courage is not a polemic for pacifism. Essentially it's a play which condemns materialism, the making of money at the expense of one's humanity. It is set in the seventeenth century when almost all of mainland Europe was beset by the Thirty Years' War which left Germany and her people devastated and destroyed, Brecht wrote Mother Courage when he was in exile from Hitler's Germany and when he had to move from country to country as a refugee.

Writing about his translation, Lee Hall says that his task was "to clean the rust from the irony and humour in order that they would pierce like a stiletto." The result is a play with lots of Hall's "in yer face" jokes, some of which are almost uncomfortable to laugh at ; for instance, "Believe me, where ever there is a valiant deed, there is a f*ck up somewhere". What Hall's translation gains is bitter irony. What it loses the lyricism and didactic elements of Brecht's original. The devices are there to remind us of Brecht's rejection of the "suspension of disbelief" and which instead create alienation, so that simplistically, the audience is ever aware that it is watching a play with actors, not real people. The scenes are announced individually, the songs are used as commentary on the action to distance the punters. Before the play even begins, the arriving audience is greeted by the actors, a group of soldiers relaxing to the strains of the accordion.

Meckler and Hunter are effective at creating the characterisation of Mother Courage without pity or empathy, so that even in moments of terrible loss, we do not identify with her. Kathryn Hunter is impassive at these moments, none more so when she has to pretend that she does not recognise the body of her son, Swiss Cheese, unzipped by the enemy in a body bag. Hunter is a small figure dressed in colourful Eastern European gypsy clothes, a visual reference maybe to the gypsy asylum seekers who in London, in recent weeks, have been so condemned for begging with small babies out in the cold. The actress's dark eyes sparkle but her smiles are sardonic, her laughter, cynical. She succeeds admirably at creating a dislikable woman with her hard and callous characterisation. Her voice is rich and uses the same northern accent used by Diana Rigg in the same part. Rachel Saunders is eye catching as the tart with the diseased and itchy crotch. She is aped by Courage's dumb daughter, Kattrin, the role Brecht created for the German actress Helene Weigall, so that she could act in America. As Kattrin, Hayley Carmichael gives a sensitive, performance, suffering rape but unable to explain in words. Marcello Magni shows his usual good natured clowning, he has extensive Theatre de Complicité experience and "can work the crowd".

Mother Courage's physical burden, the ever present cart, is dragged around by children and mother and Angela Davies's minimised set reflects the screening of the cart. At the close to the three hour play, a hand held spotlight is swung round to add to the illusion of battle nearby. Dumb Kattrin frantically bangs the drum as a warning to the townsfolk in a moving and climactic final scene. It is this sad and cruel image which stays with you.

CurtainUp's review of another production of Mother Courage and Her Children

Written by Bertolt Brecht
Translated by Lee Hall
Directed by Nancy Meckler

With: Nicholas R Bailey, Hayley Carmichael, David Fielder, Kathryn Hunter, Francis Lee, Marcello Magni, Clive Mendus, Phuong Nguyen, Rachel Saunders, Simon Walter, Maurice Yeoman.
Set Design: Angela Davies
Lighting Design: Tina McHugh
Music: Dominic Muldowney
Company Movement: Liz Ranken
Running time: Three hours with an interval
New Ambassadors Theatre West Street, London WC2
Box Office:
020 7836 6111 To 20th May 2000
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 27th April 2000 performance

©Copyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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