Brecht’s famous anti-war play is set during the Thirty Years War, fought between Protestant and Catholic States, which ravaged Europe from 1618. It must have been like living through a world war that lasted thirty years… Some of course lived off the war as well as through it. Alongside the soldiers were camp followers, from prostitutes to travelling market folk, epitomised by Anna Fierling, called Mother Courage because she drove her supply cart through the bombardment of Riga to sell bread to hungry soldiers.
War has given Mother Courage a living – and three children by three different fathers. But what it gives it takes away too and the play’s complete title ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’ has a sad irony, for it’s the story of how she loses them when she risks gambling her living against their lives and the stakes prove too high.
Stephen Unwin’s production opens with the iconic image of Courage’s covered wagon pulled by her children – and a musical number for full company from composer Matthew Scott more reminiscent of Boublil and Schonberg than Weill or Eisler.
Diana Quick makes a handsome, sexy Courage – you imagine the fathers of her children appreciating her for rather more than just her head for business. And that goes for the current rivals for her affections (and the sustenance that comes with them!), the Chaplain and the Cook, here appealingly performed by Patrick Drury and Tom Georgeson respectively.
As for the children, Samuel Clemens makes a fine impetuous Eilif, inheriting his mother’s dangerous ability to flirt with war, well-contrasted with Youssef Kerkour’s more stolid Swiss Cheese. And Jodie McNee brings power and pity to poor brave dumb Kattrin. The production is uniformly well cast, with an especially attractive performance from Gina Isaac as the feisty whore Yvette.
Nonetheless, the play seems here to have a portentousness – maybe akin to that in Les Miserables - and to lack a lightness of touch that often happily characterises contemporary productions of Brecht’s plays. Perhaps it is indeed partly a function of the music covering some hefty scene changes that would have surprised Brecht. Paul Wills’ set might be more elaborate than necessary, militating against smooth-flowing action, though his map backdrop is effective. And there's a deliberate quality to the evening, characterised by the distinctive East Anglian accent adopted by Diana Quick that slows the pace somewhat. Despite the timely – and timeless - message that there are no winners in war, its inexorable nature might be better served by a faster-moving production.
- Judi Herman (reviewed at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford.)