Mother Courage and her Children, Merthyr Labour Club, review: Brecht gets the Valleys treatment

National Theatre Wales offer an imaginative interpretation

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The Independent Culture

In Merthyr Labour Club, National Theatre Wales’ artistic director John E McGrath has found a lively venue that decisively helps re-shape Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 play.

While Brechtian scene titles may tell us we’re in Sweden in 1624, during the 30 Years War, the characters here are every inch your cheerily resilient Valleys women, as tough as the old boots they’re flogging. This may be a hard-scrabble world - but it’s also a South Wales night out, complete with karaoke and dancing. Those Brechtian signs spring up in bouncy lettering on TV screens; his songs are delivered over disco backing tracks or syrupy country tunes. The wagon Mother Courage pulls is a brace of shopping trolleys. The prostitute Yvette wears a glittery cowboy hat; the chaplain, an ‘I Heart Jesus’ T-shirt.

The script by Hinterland writer Ed Thomas is also written to a modern South Walian rhythm, its comically deadpan cadences spiced with flamboyant obscenities, often affectionately delivered. Mother Courage is a businesswoman who sells clothing, food, and drink from her wagon; the war lets her make money, but she is desperate to keep her three children safe. The play’s message - that you can't profit from war without also suffering losses - comes through loud and clear in Thomas’ version, which has a directness that seems true both to Brecht and the Valleys.

This is an unusually jovial telling of what can be a trudging play; while the story is stuck to, the wryly pessimistic humour that overlays its characters’ indomitable spirit keeps things buoyant. When tragedy falls - as it does repeatedly in this unjust, war-torn world - the response is more “oh bugger” than a beating of breasts. This can be a fault: the matter-of-factness diminishes our emotional response to the losses throughout the show (not that that would bother Brecht).

But we do still root for Mother Courage. Of course we do - even though she's shown as selfish, pragmatic to a fault, and cruelly canny. Rhian Morgan gives a suitably ballsy, brassy performance here as the ultimate Mam of Merthyr.

Although the entire cast - including a community chorus - is female, those playing male characters play them decidedly as men. I presume this is to highlight how the women can be tough as any blokes. What's less clear is why Mother Courage’s mute daughter is played by an older actress; while Sharon Morgan is convincingly vulnerable, it’s a casting decision that seem to lack obvious rationale.

Sightlines can be a minor issue in the traverse staging, and a late move into the open air loses energy rather than building to a climax, which is a shame. But for the most part this Mother Courage proves to be imaginatively conceived and coherently realised - not to mention bracingly rude.

To 22 May; nationaltheatrewales.org

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