How does war sound? How does it feel to breath the life-threatening air?
Dim light, a grey shaded set design (Barney Georg), aircraft noises and soldiers welcome the audience on their way to the auditorium. This immediately immersion into a place of terror, threat and unsettling darkness does not aim to answer these questions, rather displays the impossibility of any answers given. Even though the audience is stimulated and invited in the represented world, a child who plays “war” with soldier figures unmasks the imitation, as well as the daily life chatter of the audience juxtaposed with the terrifying soundscape (Patrick Ball) reveals the representational scenario.
That is the atmosphere of Bertolt Brecht’s famous play Mother Courage And Her Children shown at the Southwark Playhouse and produced by a well-known cast and creative crew. Hannah Chissick directed this masterpiece of an anti-war play using the translation of Tony Kushner. Accompanied by an outstanding ensemble, Josie Lawrence shines convincingly as the leading actress. Her portrayal dismantles Mother Courage’s mask of a business woman and shows her not only as the anti-hero, but also as a victim.
Brecht sets this story in the 17th century during the long-lasting Thirty Years War: Anna Fierling, called Mother Courage, and her children: Swiss Cheese (Julian Moore-Cook), Eilif (Jake Phillips Head) and Kattrin (Phoebe Vigor) follow the Swedish army with a cart to sell and trade provisions. Mother Courage gains profit from the war and its victims and calls war her business, whereas peace is its ruin. One by one she loses her children on the battlefield and its aftermath: Eilik becomes a soldier, Swiss Cheese a victim of his honesty and Kattrin, the mute daughter, an embodiment of bravery and selflessness. Her children fight for their virtues while Mother Courage always changes sides and attitude dependent on the wind of the situation. Although courage suits her children better, she is a tough, clever and independent woman feeding her family and male companions. Satire and irony are used for criticism, but her action exposes her profit seeking regardless of emotions and attachment.
Mother Courage is difficult to grasp. Brecht’s “Verfremdunseffekt” (Alienation effect) contributes to the distance to her and her story. Songs and announcements comment on past or future events to disrupt the storyline. Merging scenes where characters observe each other, puts the focus on the action of observation and perception presenting it as an active decision as well. In this way the audience is, according to Brecht’s strategies, positioned as active perceiver judging and criticising the unfolding story underlined by the traverse stage situation. The cast repeatedly seeks moments of encounters with the audience simultaneously breaking the fourth wall and inviting the audience in the story. The paradox of exposing the play as a representation and immersing the audience nevertheless into the world characterised the play’s tension and captivation which the ensemble around Chissick mastered with bravura.
A three-hour duration is a commitment but will not be disappointed, but rather rewarded with enthralling action and the great team of cast and creatives. The songs manifest a skilled performance by the cast, but the voices are sometimes drowned by the instruments. The traverse stage offers a variety of possibilities to engage with the plot and the theatrical frame, nonetheless blocks occasionally the view for a certain side or specific rows. The role of the active perceiver is taken literally in this context.
This revival of Brecht’s masterpiece is a must-see. Chissick succeeded in portraying a timeless drama about the terror of war, its losses and sacrifices which questions any benefit or victory. Regardless any reasoning, war is a vehicle for a call for power and greed, turning virtues to threats of death. The unmasking of the enemies is redundant as they are invisible and silent, impossible to defeat, impossible to hide from. It is essential in our time of anonymous and unlocated terror threats by focusing on people dragged into the unimaginable and non-representative misery. Make your way to accompany Mother Courage and her Children on their battlefield.
Mother Courage And Her Children is playing at Southwark Playhouse until 9th of December. For more information and tickets, see www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/mother-courage-and-her-children/