It’s 2080 and the Reds and Blues are at war in Anna Jordan’s adaptation of Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children. Mother Courage (played by Royal Exchange favourite Julie Hesmondhalgh) and her brood are Reds, not that this matters much in a conflict where the sides seem arbitrary and the aim seems unclear. As the itinerant family and their ice-cream van move within a territory formerly known as Europe, Jordan seems to be exploiting contemporary concerns over Brexit to explore what might happen if a corrosive form of isolationism takes hold.
Colour is used in interesting ways in the production’s design as well as its narrative. The pervasive dour, grey palate is pierced by neon flashes of capitalism that seem at odds with the bleak surroundings. Prostitute Yvette’s vivid red boots are coveted by Mother Courage’s mute daughter, Kattrin (an excellent Rose Ayling-Ellis) who perhaps views them as a symbol of hope and love. And, as time progresses at a rapid rate between scenes, the gradual degeneration of the once-bright ice cream van matches the increasingly desperate situation of the family.
But just as the van’s structure goes into decline, the resilience and depravity of Mother Courage grows. This is evidenced by the changing nature of the goods and services for sale: she sells clothing, then burgers, sex, and finally weapons and drugs. Mother Courage does not seem to acknowledge the immorality of profiteering from war, but then she struggles to react appropriately to anything she faces. She is a shockingly unsympathetic mother. There is a horrible irony in the tenderness she shows towards Kattrin once it’s already too late.
Though the production is undoubtedly harrowing, the fact that the most disturbing action takes place off-stage ensures that the focus remains on cause and effect. Director Amy Hodge is refreshingly unafraid of silence and she draws out deep meaning from small expressions and gestures, such as Hesmondhalgh’s studied attempts to remain impassive when Mother Courage is shown the body of her son, Swiss Cheese. Some strong female performances come too from the supporting cast, particularly Hedydd Dylan as Yvette who joins Mother Courage in oscillating between victim of circumstance and exploiter of power. A fur coat – dirty maroon, like dried blood – becomes as a marker of success wrought at human cost.
The use of symbolism allows the production to wear its didacticism lightly, but Brecht’s anti- capitalist message still has impact. By the end, colour has been leached from the stage; hope has been eclipsed by despondency. Hesmondhalgh’s Mother Courage has become a burdened, solitary figure whose exploitative greed has led only to loss.
Mother Courage and her Children runs at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 2 March 2019
Photo credit: Richard Davenport