by Bertold Brecht. Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich.
Brecht’s epic plays Mother Courage and Her Children (1941), The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941, The Life of Galileo (1943), The Good Person of Szechuan (1943) and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1945), don’t lack for performances, in spite of their overtly political agendas. Brecht would no doubt find some irony in the fact that the essentially bourgeois theatrical establishment finds merit and an audience for these plays, in spite of their obviously revolutionary flavour.
At one level Mother Courage is an account of the struggle of a gutsy woman and her family in a period of war. Brecht sets the play in the Thirty Years War the better to enlist the objectivity of the audience. However, the play is also structured so that it can be seen as a parable and metaphor, and audiences are invited to draw particular conclusions about the nature of all wars and people’s reactions to them. the challenge for anyone directing and playing in Mother Courage is to ensure that play emerges essentially as a metaphor, and that the audience doesn’t identify too much with the plight of its apparent heroine. Mother Courage, pushing her cart from one place to another, is a business woman intent on making money out of the war. She says that she isn’t interested in politics only the wellbeing of her family and herself, but the play makes it clear that she colludes with the system that sees war as a means of making profits, and in so doing she loses all her children.
Brecht saw the theatre as serving the needs of society not those of the playwright, and from his (as he saw it) anti-capitalist position this meant using the theatre as a vehicle for criticising capitalism. Typically Brecht wished to display events on stage in an unusual way: a way which would prevent use from identifying ourselves unreservedly with the plight of, for example, a single character. He talked about “a double process” which would allow us “to lose ourselves in the agony (of events) and at the same time not to lose ourselves”, the better to understand the plight of people in a more objective, analytical manner. However, Brecht himself wasn’t always successful in achieving the necessary balance. At the play’s first performance in Zurich in 1941, which he directed, the audience seems to have hugely admired Mother Courage’s spirit and her ability to survive, without recognising Brecht’s larger strictures about capitalism and war.
The audience at the Wolsey in Ipswich when I saw the play recently made no such easy identification. In an admirable production which manages to draw the audience into the spirit of the enterprise, we are left in no doubt about the roots of war and its monstrous human consequences; and of the culpability of Mother Courage in the death of her children. Full of the satire and occasional moments of the grotesque, and intercut by songs in the manner of a music hall, the play makes for wonderful evening. As Brecht had it “War is a continuation of business by other means” and “business people are in it for what they can get”. Those leaving the theatre that evening and being immediately confronted by a newspaper poster advising of “Kosovo—Air Strikes”, might have recognised the force of these injunctions in a new way.