Mother Courage – Big Issue Review

March 14, 2011 | Filed Under Reviews 

The setting is the 17th century 30 Years War, one of the most devastating in Europe’s history; the aesthetic is that of the Spanish Civil War, all mismatched army fatigues and a bombed-out backdrop graffitied with an anarchist’s mark; the mindset of the characters is timeless and never more contemporary, although it could equally apply to any war-torn country or era. Across northern Europe in the 1600s, the Mediterranean in the 1930s or Libya today, it’s easy to imagine civilians being subjected to the same soul-eroding mix of terror, desperation and futile ennui as Mother Courage and her children.

Performed by the inclusive theatre company Birds of Paradise, this version of Brecht’s pitch black musical comedy (using Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall’s translation) capably mirrors the sense of world-weary laughter in the face of horror that must surely be the only means of retaining sanity when existence is reduced to survival at any cost. Much of this is down to Alison Peebles in the lead role, who imagines the character as a sharp-tongued Scots matriarch with an acid deadpan and a wicked verbal flick of a swear-word that’s just enough to keep she and her three children alive. Or for a time, at least, in the case of upright Eilif (Paul Chaal), dopey but dependable Swiss Cheese (Johnny Austin) and mute Kattrin

(Ashley Smith, a wonderfully natural and expressive performer even without dialogue).

A small-time war profiteer who drags her cart around the battlefields selling shirts and supplies, Courage might these days be more suitably described as some kind of tinpot disaster capitalist, a most lowly example of the market moving in to clear up where war has blasted a new landscape of opportunity into being. Called a ‘parasite’ in peacetime by the Chaplain (Keith Macpherson) who is happy to live off her favour during conflict, Courage is sanguine about the whole business: for the poor, she muses, life is a struggle whether cannons are firing overhead or not.

Yet even as she pines for war to continue so her living might continue, necessity becomes selfish hypocrisy as each of her children is forced by the conflict into a position which might cost their life. Loyalty is also a casualty, as the group are forced to shuttle back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism depending on whose lines they’re behind – for an adaptation that’s touring provincial Scots theatres, the opportunity for a little light ribbing of both sects has been taken. Broadly, in fact, the right tone is set throughout, although the line between pathos and black amusement is, perhaps deliberately, a fine one. A bright and jerky supertitle screen is distracting, though, and draws attention to areas of the play which are perhaps slightly under-rehearsed.

3/5 – original review.


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