It’s pretty rough out there, with war-mongering racists and Nazis and sexists running things (into the ground). So there’s no better help for dealing with all of these real-life horrors than sitting through a three-hour play about how terrible war is for everyone. No I’m not being sarcastic. Southwark Playhouse’s production of “Mother Courage and Her Children”, the anti-war epic play from Bertolt Brecht, is a small, simple, yet powerful one about how even those who think they might profit or benefit somehow from war will suffer. There are two things you can count on, really: War is terrible for everyone, and the Southwark Playhouse will always put on quality productions. Even though my attention span usually maxes out after about 15 minutes (usually when I have to pee), I thought this was a stellar show. Sure I was a ball of sorrow for the rest of that day but who isn’t nowadays!
True to form, Brecht didn’t set the play during Nazi rule but during the Thirty Years War in the 1600s, involving all the Eurozone. He tells the story of Mother Courage, the name everyone in Sweden knows a middle-aged woman named Anna by, who sells goods out of a rickety wagon with the help of her three children, all from different fathers. We have the honest but dumb (“they said you were pretty but dumb….no I’m sorry that’s ‘pretty dumb’”) Swiss Cheese, in a name that I’m SURE could have been translated better from the German but okay, it doesn’t completely take you out of the serious moments to hear people wailing about a guy named Swiss Cheese or anything; the arrogant and aggressive Eilif, who you know what I’m actually gonna describe as braggodocious; and the mute Kattrin, who obviously has trouble communicating but who often (and crucially) manages to find a way. Mother Courage isn’t a particularly good person. She likes when there’s a war going on, because she can make a decent business selling supplies and food and whatever else to soldiers. Her mind for business seems to take precedence over anything else, including her morality and her common sense.
This production boasts a translation from the original German (real name: Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder LOVES IT) by Tony Kushner, the writer of “Angels in America” Mother Courage is portrayed by Josie Lawrence, who I only knew from the British version of ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway” back in the day. She is a genius improviser, and it turns out a pretty genius actress too. (Who knew? Oh everyone in Britain. Her bio in the programme is the longest one I’ve ever seen.) Josie deftly makes Courage a bit likable at times while also being hard to root for since she loves war and everything, and puts making money ahead of everything else, even her children.
When we meet Courage and the kiddies, they’re pulling the knickknack wagon into a camp where a few officers are trying to recruit more soldiers into the Swedish army. Interested in the children, the officers try to persuade them to sign up. Courage is like, hell no, get away from my kids, and hey I’m going to tell your fortune. She puts pieces of paper in a hat, some with black crosses on them, which foretell the officers’ deaths. The officer chooses a slip with the black cross, oh no he gon die. Well yeah it’s war. The kiddies want to play too because kids love games (they are young adults btw not toddlers like I’m making them sound) and Courage is like oh sure okay I know you’re all going to get blank ones because we are the rare few blessed during wartimes. Of course, all three children pull pieces of paper with black crosses, so we know from the start that they’re gon die too. You would think that Courage would get her kids as far away from the warzone as possible to try to save them from their fate, but she loves war and selling her goods so they stay in the thick of it. In fact, Eilif, the terrible, signs up to army (mother) right then and there, not really caring that he’s probably (definitely) going to die in it; he just really wants to start slaughtering people (true). Courage wails a little but then moves on with Swiss Cheese (can I call him something else) and Kattrin, pulling the wagon and selling their wares to the next camp of soldiers.
Between scenes, we’re to understand that years are passing. The next time we see the conceited Eilif, played by a kind of terrifyingly effective Jake Phillips Head (Screwdriver), he’s the toast of the battalion and the general’s new favorite because he killed a bunch of peasants and stole their cattle. Like…that’s not a good thing guys. War is despicable. Courage runs into him (Sweden so small?) and yells at him not for slaughtering civilians but for putting himself in danger. Good job teaching him how to not be evil. This is a good time to tell you that the play features several very strange songs to augment the action, songs actually featured in the original, which I couldn’t believe. They really do (sometimes) complement the rest of the drama, but they veered into kind of silly very often. And because of the, shall we say, interesting acoustics and sound setup caused by the rickety tarped-in room, they all had to kind of shout, so everyone’s singing voice became a shouty voice and it sounded super gravelly and all I could think was ‘alright I’m shouting. I’m shouting I’m shouting I’m shouting!” Still, the songs did work, mostly.
The next scene, a few years later, we meet Yvette, the camp prostitute (is everyone named Yvette in dramatic works a prostitute?) who is a welcome bit of fun into all this darkness. Played by a hilarious and fully committed Laura Checkley, she’s all floozy and bestockinged and Courage tells Kattrin ‘don’t fraternize with soldiers and end up like her!’ and Yvette sings a song about fraternizing (literally it’s called The Fraternization Song). Kattrin tries on her high heels in secret and prances about with scarves and stuff pretending to be a pros (‘my daughter was a pros”). When Courage sees her, she flips out and Kattrin breaks down, being somewhat developmentally delayed, and Courage tries to comfort her in a manner we see repeated throughout the show. Maybe if you didn’t upset her in the first place, Courage, but anyway, the relationship between the two is really quite well done and I loved how Josie would stroke Phoebe’s face in the same manner every time. The actress, Phoebe Vigor, was remarkably good considering she had no lines. I thought she was consistently effective. I might be biased because she looked like my friend from high school.
Meanwhile, Swiss Cheese…you know what, I’m gonna call him Gary, in honor of the UK vegans calling vegan cheese Gary. Gary is played by a strong Julian Moore-Cook. So Gary by now has gotten a job in the army not as a soldier but as a paymaster, something Courage could approve since he watches over all the money. And since he’s such an honest fool, he’ll never be guilty of stealing or cooking the books. Of course, his good intentions backfire, and when he is in possession of the cash box for the regiment, the Catholics invade. He hides the cash box so it doesn’t get stolen, but the Catholics capture him and torture him to give it up, which he won’t do. He’s a pretty good guy. Unfortunately, his mother isn’t the best, and when she has a chance to sell her wagon to pay off the captors to free her son, she doesn’t. This intense scene took the air out of the room a bit. Instead of selling the wagon, Courage has the idea to pawn it and then buy it back by using the money in the cashbox, which she assumes Gary will help her find. So she plans to offer the captors the full amount she got in the pawn, but then she learns that Gary threw the box in the river, thus denying her the opportunity to get the money back immediately. Even though her son’s life is on the line, she backtracks on the price and offers less than the full amount she has, leaving something for her to use to get her business back up. When she gets word that the captors rejected her offer, she finally jfc decides to offer all the money she has, but it’s too late. One down two to go. This was the worst part, because Gary was the nice one and this was the clearest instance of Courage’s backward priorities causing tragedy. Josie was scarily believable in this scene, hesitating before making her offers so you could sense her really weighing her choices, thinking for a second about what she wanted to save more, her son or her business, and making us wonder whether any common sense or clarity was getting through to her at all.
Oh so meanwhile, a chaplain from Eilif’s camp (David Shelley) has been traveling with Courage and the kids for a while and he continues with them for many years after, for reasons unknown. I mean he probably loves her but, like, why. Shelley is great in this role, and he comes off the best in the songs, I think. Those weird ass songs. They work but they’re so strange, a mix of folk songs and super emo ragers and Irish drinking songs. Anyway the chaplain proposes to Courage at one point but she turns him down because she likes really shitty men more, like this army cook she runs into every now and then who somehow makes a good impression on her even though he’s the embodiment of white male commenters on youtube.
A few years later, they get word that the war has ended. No one knew for a few days because news didn’t travel as quickly as it does now. Courage is pissed because she still has all this stock to sell and her business is more important that the lives that will be saved now. Unfortunately for Eilif, his is the rare life that peace will be the downfall of, because he did another peasant-killing spree for no good reason, and now that it was peacetime, this same exact action that made him the general’s favorite during wartime is now grounds for execution. Courage is out trying to sell her goods to townspeople before they find out it’s peacetime, so she didn’t know about her next son’s death. It’s unclear whether she ever finds out, actually. But there’s another twist: News travels so slow back in these times that not only did they not hear about peace for a few days, they didn’t immediately hear that the peace lasted like an hour and it actually IS war time still! Isn’t Courage so happy! She loves war! Kind of a shame that if they waited like thirty more minutes the army would have given Eilif a medal for his actions instead of killing him, but he was a shit person anyway soooo not too sad.
But as the years pass, supplies and food dwindle to nothingness, and Courage is left alone with Kattrin and the shitty cook, who had driven off the chaplain with his mean and immature youtubery. As they all traverse the countryside starving and broke, the cook finds out that he inherited an inn in Utrecht and asks Courage to go there with him and start a new life with actual shelter – but without Kattrin. She ugly. Or something, that’s the kind of thing he would say. Courage for some unknown reason really is into the cook, so it’s kind of surprising when she shows a heart and quotes Lifetime movies: “not without my daughter!” So then he leaves (every scene someone else departs and leaves Courage to pick up more of the slack), and Courage and Kattrin have to pull the pretty empty wagon alone.
Later, they’re staying with a peasant family one night and Courage goes into the town to do some trading. But the Catholics invade and force the peasants to show them into the city where they’re going to kill everyone. The peasants capitulate because they don’t want the soldiers to hurt them but like aren’t they going to kill everyone anyway?? Kattrin, showing unbelievable strength and maybe the only one with a moral compass, climbs on the roof and beats a drum in order to wake the townspeople and warn them of what’s coming. The soldiers shoot her but not before she succeeds in her pretty valiant mission. I thought Phoebe was so good in this scene, maybe because I was just so thirsty for one character in this show to show some selflessness and morality and when it finally happened I was quick to give all the credit to the actress, but still, she was so determined and emotional. Just great work, which was followed by more great work from Josie who mourned her last child, gave her to the peasants to bury, and then struggled to pull her wagon all alone. Did she learn at this point that war is terrible? It’s unclear, whether she gathers her strength to go back to business because it’s what she has to do and it’s all she knows, or because it’s all she can do with her life now. But it’s clear to the audience that no one wins in war and nothing good ever comes from it. Except good art, I guess.
Mother Courage is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until Saturday, December 9. Tickets are stupid cheap for shows here considering how high the quality usually is. The house is rearranged so that it’s two sets of bleachers facing each other and the cast runs through the aisles a lot. Very small and intimate.
Southwark doesn’t really have a stagedoor because the cast comes through the lobby and bar area and everyone just mingles. Fun!