A Modern Classic: Mother Courage and Her Children at Leeds Playhouse

Bertold Brecht’s 1939 play, Mother Courage and Her Children, is regarded as one of the greatest anti-war plays of all time, and in the midst of Europe facing a refugee crisis, Brecht’s tale of traumatic displacement due to war seems more fitting than ever. Through the combined talents of Red Ladder theatre company and director Rod Dixon, they deliver a masterful production of this modern classic.

Brecht tells the story of Anna Fierling (played by Pauline McLynn, best known as Mrs Doyle in Father Ted), mother of three, as she attempts to profit from the Thirty Years War ravaging Europe during the 17th century. As she drags her cart across battlefields hawking her wares, her three children are dragged into the calamity, and we bear witness to her calculating the value of her children’s lives, against the value of her business.

The most notable aspect of Dixon’s production is without a doubt the imaginative staging that few audience members will have seen before, called ‘promenade theatre’. Set designer Sara Parks uses the bowels of Albion Electric Warehouse as an austere stage, where actors and audience members alike walk through curtained off sections of a dimly lit basement, joining Courage and her cart across a journey on two levels: physically, across the war-torn battlefront with gravel crunching underfoot, and emotionally, as our views on loss, defeat, and the futility of war are questioned.  

As many have come to expect from Red Ladder, their creativity shines throughout. For example, by having the soldiers wear masks which turn their features into grotesque caricatures, cantankerous colonels become twice as sneering and simple soldiers become twice as menacing, adding to the surreal environment you find yourself in –  a world in which a man’s life can be bought with a fistful of coins.

Special mention must be made to McLynn and Bea Webster for their acting talents; both are a delight to watch. McLynn perfectly embodies Mother Courage, slipping from resilient survivor, to greasy peddler, to grieving mother without a hitch. Meanwhile, Webster, who plays her mute daughter, Katrin, breathes life into a potentially ‘dated’ trope, by signing her thoughts in British Sign Language throughout.

Brecht doesn’t ask us to pity Mother Courage, rather he invites us to consider the consequences of war and to raise up. In this regard, the 2018 Red Ladder production succeeds. As the play descends into chaos around you, you’ll want to scream out, shake Mother Courage by her shoulders and ask if she truly knows what is best for her children – or if she cares. The answer is to plain to see, however. ‘Peace isn’t good for business’.

Mother Courage and Her Children is on at Leeds Playhouse until 20th October 2018.

George Dunleavy

Image Courtesy of Red Ladder Theatre Company