Showing the small picture of war and it’s harsh realises, Anna Fierling a.k.a. Mother Courage is navigating herself through a dystopian world with her three children in tow. Originally based in 1624 around the Thirty Years War, director Amy Hodge has updated Bertolt Brecht’s play to offer an amalgamation of his vision that sees Courage confront the challenges of a futuristic conflict.
Courage hauls her canteen wagon alongside daughters Kattrin (Rose Ayling-Ellis) and two sons Eilif (Conor Glean) and Swiss Cheese (Simone Blake-Hall), surviving by following the armies and selling her wares to the officers, sergeants and cooks. Brecht reveals that no sacrifice is too great to stop the war through the retelling of Courage’s uncompromising and visceral tale. Courage, played by Julie Hesmondhalgh (Coronation Street and The Almighty Sometimes) relentlessly haggles and carries the candid commentary of how to survive. Adapting to her audience by morphing her wagon into a burger bar, ice cream stand and night club, the Exchange’s circular stage has hollowed-out her van, allows the cast to climb on top, inside and around the vehicle as it is pushed around by the family.
Courage’s shrewd business mind should be enough to keep her and her children out of harm’s way as she exposes the real profiteers of war and highlights how aptitudes such as bravery, selflessness and truthfulness are burdens in times of senseless violence. The Royal Exchange places the audiences in the combat without showing any of the action as Courage plays out the afflictions of war on a smaller scale. With a live musician on the first floor above the stage, Nick Pynn breaks out a tailored folk soundtrack that underscores the simpler themes and severe truths of the plot. Original songs like The Great Capitulation have been reworked to reflect on what the powerless can do against forces beyond their control, which despite originally being written in 1939 around growing Nazi terror, needs little more than a fresh coat of paint to bring it up-to-date.
Anna Jordan’s new production of the silencing, trauma and resilience of the working-class revolve around a small ten-person cast where the conflict is captured through Courage’s conversations and losses. Despite the shows attempts to capture light relief in Brecht’s pitiless plot, it is jarring to witness central cast members reappear in minor roles, out to perform one liners or included in a surreal dance scene combined with the horrors of war.
Brave enough to bring children into this world and ride the waves of war for her family, Courage pulls her makeshift, fragile home as a humble reminder of what is worth fighting for. Hesmondhalgh heads us through a litany of losses in a production that challenges audiences to think about what self-preservation and sacrifice really mean in times of war. Through its modern perspective, this adaption of Brecht's narrative returns the Exchange to its bare bones, settling on a sense of danger that remains outside the theatre doors.