United Kingdom Theatre Critic
Red Ladder Theatre Company celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year. From their beginnings in street theatre to becoming one of the most respected theatre companies around today, there’s always been a sense of urgency and vitality with their pieces, primarily brought about by Artistic Director Rod Dixon. Whether it’s creating a new piece of work or finding the urgency in an existing text, Red Ladder has always been poised to accomplish the task. For Red Ladder’s 50th Anniversary, Dixon has made the decision to bring Bertolt Brecht’s classic anti-war play Mother Courage and Her Children to the Albion Electric Warehouse in Leeds, where they also fairly recently staged the critically acclaimed The Shed Crew. On a cold and drizzly autumn night, I huddled into the old warehouse to engage with Red Ladder’s latest offering.
Mother Courage is set in the 17th century amidst the hellish undertakings of a long, painful war. The title character, Mother Courage (played by Pauline McLynn), is a cart-pulling peddler with a penchant for pushing forward via rough trading and quick wit-infused decisions, all in the hope of securing a better present for her band of followers. As she makes her way across the land, encountering an ensemble of buffoonish soldiers and a landscape in turmoil, we watch as she pays the ultimate price against the crushing, monetary profitability of war.
As we move through Sara Perks’ beautifully simple promenade set design, we actively fulfil Dixon’s intentions to have his audience feel as though they are experiencing the terror and uncertainty that comes with being part of a fleeing refugee group. There’s a sense of suspense as we move to assemble at the next area for the next scene, and while some may call it unconventional for a Brecht play - since the playwright originally wanted to alienate his audience from the situation in a bid to encourage collective judgment on the portrayed situation rather than become emotionally entangled in it - there’s something refreshing about experiencing the work in this way. While I didn’t necessarily feel terrified, I did feel a sense of yearning and grasping for hope as we moved through the darkness in the same way that McLynn’s Mother Courage does with her followers. It’s a very subtle but hugely impactful directorial decision that brings us closer to the tangible sense of meaning Brecht buried within his text, and asks important questions about modern situations currently unfolding in our own world.
There’s also a gloriously subtle yet overt sense of characterisation at play amongst the terrific ensemble of performers bringing the play to life. It would be unjust of me to single out performers here, since the company performs so well together, but as an example of how Dixon’s directorial decisions have influenced these memorable performances: Luke Dickson’s boomingly direct recruiting officer, Becky Barry’s somewhat cartoonish soldier, and of course McLynn’s incendiary Mother Courage. All of these performances, along with the rest of the ensemble, are beautifully crafted and help present a kaleidoscope of characters and perspectives that give us a sense of a distant play-world but not a distant reality that echoes our own in many places.
Add to the mix Boff Whalley’s musical compositions that unleash a new dynamic into the performance area, in turn activating new storytelling possibilities within the ensemble of actor-musicians, and you’ve got an incredibly memorable piece that celebrates Red Ladder’s diverse theatrical heritage. Brecht’s work often contained songs in a bid to strive further for achieving his precious alienation effect in a complex fashion - and that’s exactly what Whalley’s updated, fresh compositions do. We experience the story and journey with the characters in an attempt to understand and pass judgement on the situations depicted in the play, and come away moved and affected by the collective power of sublime storytelling.
Red Ladder’s latest production is one of its most detailed yet; tackling a Brecht play and making it contemporary is no easy feat, but the great theatre company has pulled it off with flair and finesse. Mother Courage and her Children is a gutsy, robust and highly engaging piece that demands to be seen.
Mother Courage and her Children is at the Albion Electric Warehouse until 20th October. For more information and tickets, visit: https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/mother-courage-and-her-children-2/