Why you need to see... Mother Courage and her Children, Royal Exchange Theatre
Where: Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
When: 8 February - 2 March 2019
A stage circled by gold stars. A play set in the dystopian future of a divided continent. It is easy to read too many Brexit connotations into Anna Jordan's retelling of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and her Children. That said, the current political landscape only adds further relevance to this breathtaking indictment of war, power and greed.
Capitalism and conflict may be the main themes, but further threads are weaved into the mix. Organised religion gets a healthy kicking, courtesy of Kevin McMonagle's weakly opportunistic Minister, whilst gender politics are always close to the surface. As a man watching a production with a female director, a female writer, and female protagonist, it was an eye-opener.
Mother Courage may be motivated by the thrill-of-the-deal and pound signs, but she is just as driven by the survival instincts of single mother with three kids. Literally dragging her family through war zones in a battered ice-cream van, she can seem heartless and cold - until you realise that in her world, weakness essentially means death and an absence of (far less able) men around her could result in the worst kind of assault.
Julie Hesmondhalgh is magnificent in the titular role. The very nature of the play doesn't lend itself to deep exploration of character, but Hesmondhalgh keeps you rooting for a deeply flawed and often unsympathetic character via her most lucrative commodity - charisma. In a fucked up world of shifting allegiances and rotten circumstance, she has the smarts and wit to make it through. But if even she fails, what does that tell you?
There is so much to praise about this adaptation. It is Brecht with an injection of Mad Max and a swift half of Shameless. The working-class humour and eclectic instrumentals offer welcome respite from the brutal narrative. Hedydd Dylan in particular shines during the musical interludes, whilst Jim Fortune's jarringly effective score is both futuristic and folksy. As for Courage's increasingly battered old van, it is a character in itself. Like Herbie on crystal meth.
Special mention should be made of the diversity of the cast. Not only does it make complete sense that a pan-continental story should involve as broad an ethnic mix as possible, but each female character is given a layered and refreshingly complicated arc. There is zero tokenism. As for Rose Ayling-Ellis' Kattrin, the fact that she is a deaf actress playing a deaf character is a powerful and fundamental to the plot. The one scene in which she vocalises her pain lingers with you long after final curtain.