The Progress Theatre is performing Bertolt Brecht’s epic anti-war fable Mother Courage and her Children this week. It is a tale of the endurance, weakness, heroism and cowardice of ordinary people in a time of war.
Mother Courage and her three children – a mute girl called Katrin, an idiot boy known as ‘Swiss Cheese’ and a budding sociopath son Eilif – drag their cart across war-torn Europe during the thirty years’ war in the early seventeenth century. They sell schnapps, boots, buckles and contraband ammunition to soldiers from all sides, sometimes changing the flag on their cart to match the allegiance of their customers, trying to evade the ever-changing authorities who would probably execute them all.
Rebecca Moir plays Mother Courage as a blustering, larger-than-life Arthur Daley, a brutal realist and opportunist; as equally desperate to turn a profit as to save her family from lunatic carnage. Her only apparently ‘normal’ child Eilif (played with creepy assurance by the baby-faced Max Hijmering) gets ensnared by the adventure afforded by the army, her nitwit son ‘Swiss Cheese’ (an enthusiastically naïve Jack Hygate) becomes a regimental paymaster because he’s too stupid to be dishonest, and her mute daughter Katrin (Taylor Rupp) plays with the hat and shoes belonging to a whore Yvette (played with wordly humanity by Debbie Stenlake) whilst everyone else discusses politics.
Into this somewhat dysfunctional family comes a pusillanimous chaplain (played by an occasionally quaking, and occasionally very loud, Paul Gallantry) who goes into hiding when he finds himself on the wrong side of the lines, and a bluntly northern and licentious army cook, played with knowing humour by John Turner.
Brecht apparently intended this three hour play to be a cautionary tale about profiting from the cruelty and destruction of war, and he was frequently annoyed when audiences empathised with Mother Courage, seeing a woman trying – and failing – to thrive in an appalling situation not of her making. It’s an odd notion, but perhaps Brecht was wrong about his own creation, because the Progress Theatre shows us a hard-nosed entrepreneur in Mother Courage, capable of both grief at the fate of her children and a studied heartlessness when survival is at stake.
The sparse set forces the audience to concentrate on the acting; it’s the situation and the characters who are important, not the ‘cannon’ made from chipboard and a cardboard tube. This is a thoughtful production of an old war-horse of a play that raises issues that are, unfortunately, every bit as unresolved now as when it was written in 1939.
- The Progress Theatre website and Facebook page
- ‘Mother Courage and her Children’ at the Progress Theatre
- Progress Theatre tickets