24 November 2017

Mother Courage at Southwark Playhouse was both bleak and heart-warming

The poster makes it clear that you are meant to see Mother Courage and Her Children because Josie Lawrence is in it but I went because it was written by Bertolt Brecht. That was plenty enough to get to to part with £20 for seat A37 in The Large.

I know I am relatively well off and that theatres are trying to encourage young people to get into the theatre-going habit but that seems to cheap to me. Almost everybody there looked to me as if they could easily afford another £5 or so.

I had done my customary research (none) and while I was expecting something with a war theme I had not expected it to the the Thirty Years War that raged across Europe between 1618 and 1648 between (mostly) various Protestant and Catholic states. My first encounter with this war was when I started working in Prague in 1992 and learned that Charles Bridge was the scene of a battle between Bohemia and Sweden (!).

Mother Courage followed the war trading with the armies as they travelled across Europe. She bought and sold items that she carried in a cart which was pulled by hand, initially by her two sons. Her other child was a mute which meant that she was not much of a marital catch and was likely to remain single.

The war raged around Mother Courage and while she was not directly involved, she traded with both armies as circumstances dictated, the war had a profound effect on her, her children and the many people they met. Many people suffered (it was a brutal war) and a few, like Mother Courage, survived. None thrived. The war brought many deaths, hardship as farms were abandoned, looting of captured towns and oppression of civilians. The war was a relentless dark presence.

The stage was set for movement being a traverse (or corridor) stage with seating along two long sides and the entrances at either end. I was sat in the middle of the front row (no surprise there).

The play told Mother Courage's story over several years in a series of scenes often several years apart. Survival meant putting up with some hard situations and also enjoying the few good times, like sharing a drink and a song with friends around a camp fire. Mother Courage's good humour provided several points of comedy too and she grabbed my knee knowingly while making a "chopper" joke.

Audience interaction like that was a feature of the performance and several people were brought into the story at various times. Another good feature was the songs. This was far from a musical but the half a dozen or so songs littered through the performance added to the variety and the entertainment.

Josie Lawrence was magnificent as Mother Courage taking full command of the stage without unfairly dominating it - the superb supporting cast were given space to flourish too. She was resolute, tender, powerful and funny. Her last act was possible her best, as she left the stage for the last time, still pulling her cart, she reached out for the hand of one of the audience and she got a warm and genuine response back.

Mother Courage and Her Children was a moving play about war that managed to find some humanity amongst the brutality. It was both bleak and heart-warming.

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