Theatre in Wales

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Clwyd Theatr Cymru- Mother Courage and her Children , Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold , April 16, 2004
This review first appeared in the Western Mail

It is a measure of a great dramatist that his work can be resurrected, phoenix-like, in different guises to speak to successive generations.

Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and her Children is such an example.

Written on the eve of World War II as a warning to the Danes about their relationship to Nazi Germany, it was overtaken by events: the war started before it was completed.

Brecht set it during the Thirty Years' War of the 1600s, to show how war and capitalism are linked.

But war is ever-present, and this newest production has brought Mother Courage bang up to date, set in Africa, where child-soldiers, atrocities, rape and famine still make the headlines daily.

Mother Courage is a businesswoman, selling food and supplies to soldiers on both sides from her canteen wagon.

Her children are the bastard products of liaisons with men who are enemies.

She runs risks to turn a penny, and loses her family and friends as a consequence.

New energy and brilliance has been injected into Brecht's work, which was a shocker when it first appeared more than 60 years ago.

Writer Oladipo Agboluaje has modernised the script, bringing in timely references to condoms, Aids, George Bush, Bill Clinton and 21st century life. But war and capitalism remain at the heart of the play, and the message translates seamlessly to another century and another battlefield.

Taking the central role is a fine actress, Carmen Munroe, as Mother Courage.

Tiny, indomitable, rooted in the earth and the old ways, Mother has seen every horror that man can perpetrate on man.

Her cynical pragmatism and obsession with profit were intended by Brecht to alienate her from audiences: ironically she always gains their sympathy instead, and Munroe's portrayal is no exception.

Many of the features of Brecht's innovative epic theatre have also been updated.

The banners traditionally carried to show dates and times have been replaced by film credits projected onto the sparse backdrop; a radio commentary keeps the audience updated on events, and the songs now have a more powerful African beat. Mother's family of ragbags and hangers-on include her two sons, Eket, played by Seun Shote, and Opoku, played by David Gyasi, who make the transition from gangling youths seduced into the army by beer and pornography, to soldiers fated to meet an early end.

Ashley Miller gives a touching performance as Ngozi, Mother's daughter who has been struck dumb and traumatised by a gun thrust into her mouth as a child. Miller captures Ngozi's combination of fragility and toughness as she stubbornly sticks to her principles in the face of Mother's cynicism.

There is an explosive performance by Yvette Rochester-Duncan as Ashewo, a woman who has adopted the traditional method of survival in warfare, by prostituting herself to the winning army officers, getting Aids in the process.

The production by director Josette Bushell-Mingo is invigorating and colourful, with humour, tenderness and a great sense of the pity and futility of war.

There are two minor problems. The cast have adopted the thick Nigerian accents so enthusiastically that some of the good lines are lost and impenetrable to audiences.

And Carmen Munroe's singing voice lacks something: she seems unable to decide whether to speak the songs rhythmically, or attempt to sing out of her range. Overall, though, it is an evening guaranteed to send audiences away pondering on Brecht's twin messages of the links between big business and war. As one character remarks in the fractured logic of a soldier, "Nations that fight first division wars become first division nations. We need a website and CNN cameras here."

It's horribly true.

Reviewed by: Gail Cooper

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