Mother Courage And Her Children, Albion Electric Warehouse Leeds | Review

Mother Courage And Her Children
Albion Electric Warehouse Leeds
Reviewed by Mia Goddard
Mother Courage and Her Children is set against the backdrop of the 30 years war and follows the story of Mother Courage, who is determined to make her living from the war. The play successfully communicates the themes of religion, war, power and conflict for a modern audience. Red Ladder Theatre Company based this production on the style of theatre practitioner Brecht and demonstrated to their audience how effective live theatre can really be. I’ve been closely studying the techniques of Brecht at college and this performance demonstrated his work extremely well.
The play was set at Albion Electrical Warehouse in Leeds in a dusty basement, automatically creating an intimidating feel, and was performed in promenade in which the audience would walk around the performance space rather than sit, and watch the action happen around them. Typical of Brecht, the space was zoned by cream coloured curtains to create intimate end-on stages, until the end where the curtains were stripped away creating a traverse stage, showing the magnitude of the basement for the first time. The various end-on stages further enhanced the plays episodic structure as the audience were herded from scene to scene by the ensemble. The floor was uneven with rubble underfoot and the exposing brick walls, rusty girders and cold atmosphere created an immediate unease for the audience, reflecting a refugee environment. This unique and informal setting is typical of Brechtian as the ensemble surrounded the audience, creating a boxing ring effect. The company used this to their advantage, as the unfamiliar and intimidating atmosphere encouraged the audience to adopt the role of a refugee, allowing them to feel part of the performance. This was particularly evident in the first scene of the play in which was set in a delivery bay, reflecting the danger of a refugee life. The staging of this play really communicated the significance of live performance as it allows the audience to connect with the story more carefully. It was a completely different experience to anything I’d seen before but really allowed the audience to feel a part of the story.
I found lighting and sound were very significant in this production and contributed to the action extremely well. Lighting for this performance was designed by Sara Perks and was low-lit, open white, with a few LED lanterns. The use of primarily open white is a Brechtian technique used in order to illuminate the action in the zoned placing spaces and highlight the truth of the piece like the impact and futility of war. However, in some moments the lighting was used to highlight particular actions from the actors, in order to get a reaction from the audience. Sound was also significant in this play as actor musicians were used throughout the piece who would either sing or play instruments, creating antiphonal sound-scapes.
It seemed the costumes were deliberately designed to provoke reactions and feelings towards the characters from the audience. The main aim was for the audience to see the difference between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The proletariat characters dressed in muted and earthly colours with layers to symbolise their poverty, whilst the bourgeoisie characters wore masks with rounded cheeks and padded costumes to symbolise greed. This immediately alienated the audience from the bourgeoisie characters and forced us to side more with the proletariat characters as a distant actor/audience relationship was established. The costume here allowed the audience to consider the class divide and forced them to think about the greed and corrupt 21st century.
Pauline McLynn strides through the evening as a long-winded and invincible Mother Courage. She clearly communicates that Mother Courage is not a sympathetic character, she drives a hard bargain and she’s got a tough exterior. Bea Webster’s performance as Kattrin, the most evidently traumatised character, is astonishingly physical and expressive. She is isolated from the world of words and communicates in sign language throughout. In fact, all actors used signing to communicate with her. I’ve never seen signing so integrated into a production and it proved very effective. Levi Payne is headstrong son-turned-soldier Eilif, and Matthew Lewney completes the Courage children as innocent Swiss Cheese. Adding to this is Becky Owen, who demonstrates beautiful clarity of voice with a very impressive range.
Overall, this production was unlikely anything I’d ever seen before. I’m not usually the biggest fan of plays, but the actors, along with set and design, were able to produce an extremely unique play, emphasising the importance of live theatre.
Photo Credit: Anthony Robling