New Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2
Opened 26 April, 2000

This Shared Experience production of Brecht's play is directed by Nancy Meckler in a new translation by Lee Hall; it stars Kathryn Hunter, supported principally by Hayley Carmichael, Marcello Magni and Clive Mendus; the score is by Dominic Muldowney. To aficionados of recent British theatre, the foregoing sentence contains pretty much all they need to know about the style and standard of the show. There ought to be more to it, but there is not. Arguably, there is in fact a little less.

Hunter is always a first-rate performer, and at her frequent best is sublime. On this occasion, she is merely excellent: as trader Mother Courage, following the armies of the Thirty Years' War with her cart of various wares from shirts to sausages, Hunter is strong, blunt and always engaging, but lacking in tragic stature. This is primarily due to Hall's translation and Meckler's direction. Hall, having been rightly praised for his forthright demotic version of Brecht's Mr Puntila (directed by Hunter) a couple of years ago, takes the same tack with Mother Courage but to lesser effect: the satire and grim humour work well, but the menace and the random horror of war dissipate. Meckler's direction follows Hall's tone rather than Brecht's; her criss-crossing soldiers, peasants and the like seem fundamentally amiable, lacking in terror even as they take and kill Mother Courage's three children one by one. It feels more like Fred Karno's army than the bloodiest "it could be you" lottery of them all. True tragedy clings only to the character of Courage's mute daughter Kattrin; Hayley Carmichael is one of the few actors who can steal a show from the likes of Hunter, and her wordless performance as Kattrin is first raped and hideously scarred, then defiantly raises a din to warn a town of impending attack even at the cost of her own life, is simply magnificent.

It is nearly twenty years since Muldowney first demonstrated his skill as a Kurt Weill pasticheur with his score to the BBC TV production of Brecht's Baal. Here his tunes seem rather less impressive, perhaps due to their being arranged entirely for accordion (a gentleman is someone who knows how to play an accordion but chooses not to). Marcello Magni gives what a friend described as "that performance of his again": a little clownish, a little serious, basically good-hearted and a fraction of what he is capable of. As a production, this is solid stuff; as a portrayal of Brecht's views on the pointlessness and inevitable cost of war, it is disappointingly insubstantial.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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