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Mother Courage and Her Children review at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – ‘brutal and brilliant’

Julie Hesmondhalgh in Mother Courage and Her Children at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Photo: Richard Davenport

Amy Hodge’s production of Brecht’s epic play of conflict and commerce sets out its stall from the start. The Royal Exchange stage has been painted blue and is ringed by yellow stars. It’s 2080, and Julie Hesmondhalgh’s Mother Courage roams the war-ravaged, resource-poor continent that used to be known as Europe, selling whatever she can to support herself and her gaggle of children.

Designer Joanna Scotcher has, somewhat brilliantly, transformed Mother Courage’s canteen into an ice-cream van loaded with stab vests, sausages, booze and bog roll, all things people might want in a time of conflict and deprivation. As the years pass, it becomes increasingly dilapidated, grimy and skeletal as it is stripped for parts. It morphs into a burger van and mini-brothel as circumstances dictate.

Mother Courage’s belief that the only way to survive is to become a cog in the war machine, buying and selling, forces her into some appalling corners. Hesmondhalgh captures her conviction that her way is the only way, that she is protecting her family from an even worse fate. She does not crack even when looking at the bloody body of her dead son Swiss Cheese (Simeon Blake-Hall) or saying of her recently scarred daughter Kattrin (Rose Ayling-Ellis) that at least this means she won’t be raped again any time soon.

Hesmondhalgh is an innately warm performer but that makes her unwavering pragmatism even harder to watch. It’s not an unemotional performance though; far from it. Her character suffers, she feels each loss; she just does not shed tears where tears will do no good. She lives on her wits. She needs to.

Hodge balances the Brechtian alienation techniques – the house lights are cranked up between scenes – with moments of exceptional emotional intensity. The scene in which the violated Kattrin hauls herself across the floor, howling in anguish while Courage refuses to comfort her, is distressingly drawn out, almost too harrowing.

Propelled by Jim Fortune’s music, the production couples a Mad Max vibe – Hesmondhalgh standing proud atop her van in a fur coat and combat boots – with striking cabaret-style sequences. Anna Jordan’s ferocious, dystopian adaptation is particularly alert to the vulnerability of women in times of war; without the van they would be at the mercy of predatory men, and this knowledge underlines everything. Jordan deftly merges horror with humour (something she’s always been good at, Yen being a prime example). She allows Mother Courage to be funny while also exploring the complexities of motherhood, the primal need to protect, the emotional exposure.

There’s strong work too from Kevin McMonagle, as a minister, and Hedydd Dylan as a woman selling her body, the ultimate transaction. Brecht’s play was written at a time of great upheaval, of fear and Fascism, the world about to plunge into war. This production makes it feel timely and vital.

Playwright Anna Jordan: ‘Writing can feel so isolating, but when it’s great, it’s really great’

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Julie Hesmondhalgh anchors a brilliant and brutal production of the play by Brecht