A relaxed performance ? do the actors ‘loll’ about and the techie people miss their cues? Not a bit of it, in the afternoon show of Mother Courage at the Royal Exchange Theatre on Tuesday 26 February. The performance was gripping, well-realised by a small ensemble of well-drilled actors, musicians and tech support. Relaxed in this context meant that many of the conventions that might be seen as constraints on an audience were suspended; we were introduced to the actors, the assistant director gave us a briefing as to what would be different, including house lights not lowered, doors to the exits left open, a freedom to come and go should one need to move, and an expectation that the performance was accessible to all, including feeding mothers, dementia sufferers, and those with autism. It felt great, and was hugely enjoyable; I especially relished groans of reaction at some points, crying babies being soothed, and people freely coming and going.
This production is a new adaptation by Anna Jordan, directed by Amy Hodge. The action has moved from the seventeenth century to an imagined future, 2080, in which Europe, envisaged as a set of grid squares, is fought over by the red and blue factions. This world is wildly dysfunctional, based on the supposition that our generation and those who come after have despoiled the planet of most of its resources and that ‘society’ has broken down. Mother Courage and her children veer from side to side of the opposing forces, making a scanty living from selling the ever-changing contents of her home-cum-icecream van. The world the family inhabit is all too credible, in this era of climate change and Extinction Rebellion trying to bring us all to our senses.
The language of this adaptation is accessible, earthy, modern; Mother Courage as realised by Julie Hesmondhalgh is feisty, resilient, and direct, telling a soldier ‘your balls are ripe for a kicking – fuck off!!!” She’s not an admirable character, but she’s a survivor, denying her own son not once but twice. At the end she is still standing, still dragging her livelihood behind her; she has lost all three of her children but not her own grasp on life.
Stand out performances from Hedydd Dylan as Yvette the prostitute, and Rose Ayling-Ellis as Katrin and the newly-composed music sweeps the action along through a range from Irish folk to East European Jewish to the Appalachian banjo. It’s a must see.