Mother Courage and Her Children is one of German playwright Bertolt Brecht's most famous anti-war plays, written in 1939 in response to the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany. It is a raw play, exposing the terrors of war and the often drastic choices imposed upon people in their everyday lives as they struggle to survive. It also exposes the hypocrisy inherent in the establishment, including that of military leaders, the church and the economic system; a harsh critique not only of war, but of the systems that support and encourage it. The play follows the fortunes and misfortunes of Mother Courage during the Thirty Years War as she, her three children and her canteen cart follow in the wake of armies and attempt to profit from the chaos and destruction wrought by the war.
Teatro Vivo and Greenwich & Lewisham Young People's Theatre have taken over the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich to bring the story of Mother Courage to life. It's a response to the centenary of the First World War and the military history of the site, a munitions factory and testing ground, which expanded greatly at the onset of the Great War. Upon arrival at the Gatehouse, you're invited to become a refugee, army recruit or member of the press, trailing along behind Mother Courage's rattling canteen wagon and becoming a witness to the scenes as they unfold around you. For some time, Mother Courage seems to thrive from the war and its disasters, in spite of its horrors and the loss of her three children, but does she really profit in the end?
Denise Orita plays a strong Mother Courage, putting on a mask of humour and fierce obstinance in the face of the horrors of war, but towards the end of the play her strong facade starts to crumble. The other cast members play multiple roles, but most notable are Mark Stevenson as the army chaplin, Kas Darley as the camp prostitute Yvette, and Michael Wagg as the army cook. James Trahern also strikes a fearsome presence as various menacing military personnel and Jamie Hind gives a heroic performance as Mother Courage's mute daughter, Kattrin. Following the tradition of Brechtian theatre to involve audience participation and community involvement, there is also a 30-member chorus drawn from the local community, whose members range in age from 17 to 92.
This is a thoughtful, innovative, yet timeless, promenade production that unfolds in a unique historical location. Follow Mother Courage past the cannon of wars past and think on the survival of humanity in the face of conflict today.
Mother Courage and Her Children continues at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich until 21 September. As this is an outdoor promenade performance lasting 100 minutes, warm clothing and comfortable footwear is recommended. Tickets £12/£7. Tickets may be booked via Seetickets or by calling 020 8854 1316. Tickets may also be purchased in person at the Woolwich Tramshed. Londonist saw this performance courtesy of a complimentary ticket.