Courage and a failure of Greek virtues

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Mother Courage and

Her Children

Contact at the Dancehouse,

Manchester

There is a character in Primo Levi's The Truce whom he calls "The Greek", "a strong and cold man, solitary and logical, who had acted from his infancy within the rigid framework of mercantile society". For him Auschwitz was not an anomaly but "sad confirmation of things well known. `There is always war', man is wolf to man."

Brecht, the great unsentimentalist, is fascinated by such characters - people conditioned to drive all other claims save the work of survival to the margins of their lives.

Mother Courage's iron equation of business and survival makes her Brecht's pre-eminent version of Levi's "Greek", except that she is not solitary - she has children, and they are more to her than horsepower. The cruel vice that grips her is that her commitment to Katrin is against her own interest, and her commitment to business - notably in bargaining for the life of Swiss Cheese - eventually brings her to the brink of destruction.

Carole Nimmons's portrayal in Benjamin Twist's new production for Contact Theatre is much more informed by Courage's susceptibility to sentiment, than by her cold strength. There is a fine, rasping edge to her Ulster voice, but she never seems truly resilient. When she must deny that she knows her dead son, no one could be fooled. Ultimately, Courage is a victim. This Mother Courage is never unlikeable.

Ben Twist is to be applauded for seeking to avoid sedulous imitation of Brechtian precept, but here it results in softening the focus.

The songs, some of which are banged out with a big mike, often have a syrupy strain with a plaintive violin weeping under the line, and the soldiers who shoot Katrin are tastelessly comic. Captions and the location of the Thirty Years' War are replaced by a medley of war images smudgily projected on sheets crossing the stage.

Instead of widening the reference, these have the effect of diffusing it, and there is little sense of the play's epic movement through time and across the plain of Europe's desolation.

Jeffrey Wainwright

Until 28 Feb (0161 237 9753)

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