Often when watching a piece of political theatre, it takes a scene or two to work out the message the playwright or director is illustrating. Not so in the new adaptation of Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children by Anna Jordan. Before the lights have even gone down the stage is dominated by the iconic circle of stars that mark the flag of the European Union.
While Brecht set his play in the Thirty Years War of the 17th century to reflect Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, Anna Jordan has moved it to the future in 2080, where the countries of Europe have disappeared and instead the area is split into grids fought over by the Red and Blue army.
Mother Courage and her three children navigate this dystopian landscape, following in the wake of the armies while pulling a battered ice-cream van full of goods to sell. War is business and Mother Courage is looking to make a profit.
This ice cream van (an inventive twist of the battered wagon from the play) is the heart of the set, full of beer, shirts, weapons and, as Mother Courage’s luck runs out, a bare skeleton covered in plain tarpaulin. One by one, Mother Courage loses her children to the war – the eldest son is seduced into the army, an uncomfortably realistic moment as old as time and one that stands out for me the most as a reflection of our reality.
Julie Hesmondhalgh as Mother Courage gives an outstanding performance as a ruthless, business focused woman with an almost bitter desperation to live and make a profit at any cost. She’s not a likeable character – we are not meant to like her – but Hesmondhalgh is so charismatic it is impossible not to be drawn to her every dark spark onstage.
Her three children also give magnetic performances, the brave eldest son Elif, played by the charismatic Conor Glean, the honest younger son Swiss Cheese, played by Simeon Blake-Hall and the heart of the show, the daughter Kattrin, played by a quietly emotive Rose Ayling-Ellis.
If the superb acting and storytelling are the play’s strengths, basing the political message on the splintering of the EU is its downfall. We are not supposed to care more about the emotions of the characters onstage than the political message of the play, to fall into a trance and “hang up (our) brains with (our) hats in the cloakroom.” Unfortunately the message isn’t coherent enough to rise above the raw unhappiness of the drama.
Brecht wrote Mother Courage in 1939 when Fascism was on the rise in Europe. It is 2019 and according to the former US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, “Fascism — and the tendencies that lead toward fascism — pose a more serious threat now than at any time since the end of World War II.” If the adaptation had focused on the rise of nationalism it may have tapped into this, but the image of an EU dissolving into a nameless, stateless, uniform body doesn’t make much sense.
The message of Mother Courage will always be relevant. Depressingly so, as Britain in particular continues to thrive as one of the biggest arms dealers in the world. We still live in a world where people make money off war. We once again live in a Europe where fascism is on the rise. However, by focusing on the European Union flag and a hypothetical future that won’t happen, this adaptation of Mother Courage misses its mark as a piece of political theatre.
Mother Courage runs at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until 2 March. More info here.