As part of the ongoing Eclipse Theatre project, set up to encourage more black playwrights into mainstream theatre, this Courage has been moved from 17th-century Europe to modern-day Africa, and the move is surprisingly appropriate - both times and places ravaged by war and ruled in fear.
The play is more situation than story. Over many years, Mother Courage treks around army camps with her three children and wagon containing sought-after provisions (and liquor) for the troops. The lessons she learns along the way keep her as headstrong, though her children are kidnapped, shot and sold. An open question always remains: is Courage a victim or villain?
Carmen Munroe, in the title role, sits on the fence. At times, she is indeed persecuted, but she’s also cruel and wilfully blind to her own misgivings. Munroe's tiny figure brings an exciting edge to the role – her Courage’s power is in her talk, not her walk.
The supporting cast play a host of characters, occasionally confusingly, but always with confidence. Courage's daughter, Ngozi, receives an effective yet silent interpretation at the hands of Ashley Miller, proving substance can win over speech. Not to say that the more verbose parts aren’t equally rewarding. Yvette Rochester-Duncan brings so much to the prostitute Ashewo, with her gregarious confidence and flair for entertainment. Her acapella song is a highlight.
As the curtain rises, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were actually witnessing The Lion King. Set on a vast desert stage with minimal decoration, this production from Josette Bushell-Mingo (who, in fact, once starred in the Disney musical) combines the flavour of African music with the thrill of tribal dance. The between-scene fillers are so exciting you wish there were more of them. And the uniquely beautiful solo movement that evokes the death of Courage’s children makes you almost eager for them to die.
The biggest flaw in Agboluaje’s version of the Brecht is the unnecessarily cheap laughter raised by modern references to the likes of Monica Lewinksy, Bill Clinton, Britney Spears et al. Such updating reduces the atmosphere of the piece and totally ruins the violent tension of some scenes.
By no means as revolutionary as Brecht's original, this Mother Courage and Her Children is still worthwhile, with some notable issues and performances.
- Jake Brunger (reviewed at Nottingham Playhouse)