BWW Review: MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN, Southwark Playhouse
Theatre, like all arts, is sometimes described as "necessary" and, like all arts, it seldom is - except maybe, right here, right now at Southwark Playhouse.
The alt-right movement in the USA deny - implicitly at least (and contrary to Edwin Starr's imploring) - that war is "good for absolutely nothing", but can shake up an ossified state and provide opportunities to make money (as Milo MInderbinder did buying and selling eggs in Catch 22). Brecht's message, searingly, screamingly, spectacularly arrowed into us by Josie Lawrence, is that the psychological and personal price to be paid is so very much more than the margin on the business.
Mother Courage And Her Children is always Mother Courage's platform and Lawrence takes it and stands there triumphant and tragic, demonic and demoralised, sexy and suffering. It's a huge performance - one hard to imagine as any bigger - but also nuanced in showing us the woman behind the grafter and the mother behind the grifter.
She strides up and down the traverse stage, her wagon of bric-a-brac the sole bulwark against both starvation and, something perhaps even worse, irrelevance. Her gimlet eye trained on the main chance, but straying, more than I have seen in other productions, to the welfare of her children, the mother in her as strong as her courage. For once it feels entirely natural that she gives up her chance of comfort and salvation as a Dutch innkeeper to stand by her silent disfigured daughter, the object of so much cruelty beforehand. That is the product of fine acting indeed.
But that presence is also an issue that ultimately proves insurmountable for director Hannah Chissick - everything else is rendered near invisible in the glaring beam of Lawrence's tour-de-force. Perhaps only Phoebe Vigor as the mute Kattrin can hold her own with the star turn, and, though perfectly acceptable in their roles, the support cast never really establish their characters.
Laura Checkley channels Carry On-era Babs Windsor as blowsy Yvette and David Shelley shows some understandable carnal desire as The Chaplain, but it feels like place-holding until Courage demands our attention once more. Even Duke Special's songs (such a key element of this translation, by Tony Kushner, at the National Theatre in 2009 - reviewed here) feel a little tacked on, an adjunct to the action instead of a Greek Chorus like commentary.
That the show is long and, at times, gruelling, should not detract from its merit - this is Brecht not a jukebox musical - and it's a mark of the playwright's genius that the work has only grown in relevance in the eight years since I first reviewed it. It remains an unmissable play - just make sure you have a good night's sleep before venturing into the hell of 17th century wars in the company of a woman whose mores are all too 21st century.
Photo Scott Rylander.