Susan Bennett gives a thoughtful critical account of a Captioned Performance of Bertolt Brecht's classic, complex play about war and capitalism, staged at the Quay Theatre, The Lowry, Salford on 8 March.
Mother Courage is a long play, but not nearly as long as the Thirty Years War (1618-48). After three hours trudging the battlefields from your seat in a hot and cramped theatre with little room to wriggle, you too feel you have been to Hell in a Handcart. Complex and at times, an exhausting, bewildering examination of conflict, it shows war as: a commercial opportunity, a state of being and a great means of fast tracking your career. You see not only bloody battlefields, senseless slaughter and mass starvation, but are led to question the premises upon which the concept of right and wrong are based.
At the beginning of the play Mother Courage has three adult children, two with impairments, and carelessly ends up with none. She had a thriving business following soldiers across the battlefields of Europe, selling the spoils and necessities of war, changing sides and religions as trade demanded, but loses everything except her cart, a powerful symbol of her commitment to commerce.
She bewails peace and relishes war, defends her business against all forces. ‘Don’t tell me peace has broken out just after I laid in new stock! I won’t have you folk spoiling my war for me. I’m told it kills off the weak, but they’re a write-off in peacetime too. And war gives its people a better deal….’
Time, time and time again Mother Courage chooses making money over humanity. ‘But what is war but private trading, That deals in blood instead of boots?’ When the battle wounded are brought to her cart, she fights off every attempt to rip up officer’s shirts for bandages.
Her first son is lost to an army while she is conducting a transaction behind her gypsy caravan type cart. He is later shot for an act which two days before earned him a commendation from his general – such is the unpredictability of law in war.
The second ‘slow’ son gets into trouble by being honest about a cash box he has charge of. Mother Courage tells him, ‘You’re that conscientious it makes me nervous. I brought you up to be honest, you not being clever, but you got to know when to stop.’ He is killed by eleven bullets from a firing squad after she tried to bartered down the price of his ransom so she could spend the money on new wares for her business.
There are endless victims, wrecked people, physically or emotionally disabled by war, like Mother Courage’s third child Kattrin who is traumatised by what she has seen and abuse by soldiers from one side or another and she is unable to speak. She is machine gunned after trying to warn a town of imminent attack – one of the few selfless moral acts in the whole play – while Mother Courage is selling her goods elsewhere. Curiously the daughter is referred to in this final act of bravery as a cripple, which is either a bad translation from the original script or a deliberate attempt to make a point, though quite what that would be I don’t know.
The themes are relentless, but they are left loose. In the first scene you follow the argument that It takes war to restore order. ’Peacetime the human race runs wild… Takes war to get proper nominal rolls…man and beast properly numbered and carted off. It stands to reason: no order, no war.’ Then what you see is the chaos of war….
There are attacks on the hypocrisy of religion. The chaplain who changes sides more times than his socks pleads for a cloak to hide his vestments when they hear the Protestants are coming, or the Catholics – it changes so much you lose track.
Mother Courage has to quickly haul down the flag and run up another then light candles. Yvette the lovable war whore wails at the loss of her hat as she knows Catholics like fancy clothes and she wants to bed a colonel to secure her future and red shoes. In minutes the encampment is converted to the current religion. Is this an argument for necessity to survive or mockery of the transient convenience of religious belief?
Yes it is bleak, cynical but so very human and real. There is comedy too and many plaintive songs which add dimensions, for the play is too dark and devastating to have no lighter moments. At times it is even bawdy. Yvette’s emasculation of Piping Peter the general’s cook is hilarious – and very much needed as light relief.
Eve Polycarpou who plays Mother Courage gives a strong performance and is utterly believable. World weary one moment, full of heart the next and a ruthless business woman throughout, ultimately she is the only sad survivor of this play. Natalie Grady as the war whore Yvette is a fine commanding presence. Amelia Donkor as Kattrin the daughter took a difficult part, all mimed with restless broody qualities. The male cast, apart from the chaplain who reminded me of William Hague, were very nondescript, probably deliberately so as they were all military men and disposable.
The auditorium was full, unusual for a Wednesday night, and as a captioned performance it was very well done with the type matching speech almost exactly, paced and placed so you could keep your eye on the action and I caught many people keeping their eye on the rolling screens.
Library Theatre Company: Mother Courage and Her Children
Translated by Tony Kushner
Directed by Chris Honer
22 Feb - 9 March 2013
The Lowry, Salford
Twitter: @Librarytheatre, @CornerhouseMcr