Written in Sweden in 1939 and first performed in Zurich in 1941, Bertolt Brecht’s play about the mass carnage that was the Thirty Years War, Mother Courage and Her Children, soon became the most outstanding example of Epic Theatre. It is a genre in which plays are not only dramas but also epic narratives which the audience view with emotional distance and the identification of the audience with characters on the stage is deliberately torpedoed. Among other things, this is achieved through Brecht’s infamous technique of alienation, the so-called ‘Verfremdungseffekt’, in which actors stop acting and start commenting on events that have occurred on the stage, thus creating distance between the play and the audience – and the cast of LUTG’s Mother Courage and Her Children truly did succeed in distancing us emotionally from events on the stage. Through overacting, heavy make-up around the eyes and wearing non-specific period costumes, the cast reminded the audience that they were only thespians and that the play was not real.
The down-side of this was that at times it lent a slightly festive, pantomime atmosphere to a grave topic, and some of the actors occasionally seemed a bit unsure as to how much of a caricature they should be, either playing with minimalist understatement (for example Joe Molloy as Swiss Cheese) or grotesque overstatement (particularly Ed Velloso as The Cook). However, two actors who got the level of exaggeration just right were Jack Lea as the chaplain (a shining example of neither too hot nor too cold!) and Gloria Ang as Mother Courage’s mute daughter Kattrin. Indeed, Gloria Ang’s miming skills were very effective in conveying her character’s emotions and internal thought processes and the play’s innate humour was brought to life by her performance.
Most impressive was the design and production of the play. Striking red, white, blue, and black make-up was used to indicate wounds and war weariness. Minimalist green and orange badges denoted Catholic and Protestant soldiers. Paper-mâché walls were covered with newspaper headlines containing the words ‘morally’ and ‘wrong’ in various combinations, and posters of Ronnie Rowlands as a war commander proclaiming ‘Shh! Give the war some peace’ dangled en masse from the ceiling.
One of the more striking aspects of Mother Courage and Her Children is that the commentary contained within the play is a collection of twelve songs (which is why Mother Courage is such a fine example of Epic Theatre). However, LUTG chose to replace these songs with eleven new ones composed by Emily Dixon – and luckily she is a gifted composer who creates catchy tunes. Well done to LUTG for such an audacious move!
Apart from a few minor quibbles about some of the acting skills of one or three actors, this was overall clearly the right play at the right time of year to remind us of the perpetual War on Terror which has costs the lives of thousands and thousands of people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Congratulations to the production team – particularly Matthew Bosley, Robbie Love and Keely Hawkins.