Bertolt Brecht, adap Anna Jordan, music Jim Fortune
Royal Exchange Company and Headlong Theatre Company
Royal Exchange Theatre
8 February 2019 to 2 March 2019. 2hr 20min with interval.
War! What is it good for? If you remember, Edwin Starr summed it up pretty succinctly in his 1969 soul hit. This new adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 anti-war play has endeavoured to abridge the original, but still takes more than two hours to arrive at much the same conclusion – absolutely nothing! Anna Jordan’s version moves the story along to a war sometime in the future, though maybe in a nod to the Manchester setting manages to set the conflict as one between the Blues and the Reds. Negotiating a no man’s land between the two is Mother Courage, more often than not abbreviated to MC, which is maybe why she becomes rather more of a mistress of ceremonies than the conniving collaborator with capitalism imagined by Brecht. Instead of the handcart dragged around 12 years of war, there are shape-shifting ice cream vans (complete with ‘mind the children’ messages) hauled about the stage. They are not only the burden this production has to negotiate. Jordan and director Amy Hodge strive hard to bring some modern shock value, or relevance, to a play whose original style was designed to up-end theatrical convention. But the best they can deliver is a lot of sound and expletive-driven fury. Maybe that’s why some of the ushers have ear protectors? In the title role Julie Hesmondhalgh brings her gutsy talent to bear in a theatre where she has more than proved her ability in award-winning performances. Her Mother though seems unable to avoid emerging as some kind of heroine, rather than the more conflicted character Brecht imagined. And it is seldom difficult to create spectacle in the Exchange’s wraparound auditorium, as designer Joanna Scotcher demonstrates. Taken together, however, they are still not enough to lift this Mother Courage clear of her Brechtian origins and pull her, ice cream floats and all, into any kind of contemporary conviction.