There’s something inherently timeless about Bertolt Brecht’s monumental play Mother Courage and Her Children, written at the brink of the Second World War and set, with a deliberate distancing, in Central Europe’s Thirty Years’ War. The image of Mother Courage wheeling her cart around a warzone as her children perish is a powerful one, asking questions of those who seek to profit from conflict, and encouraging bystanders to contemplate what there is to be gained from war.
This month, in an adaptation that seems at once sharply reactive to the cultural shifts in its specific district of London, and in line with the classic anti-war thrust of Brecht’s arguments, theatre director Sophie Austin is bringing this celebrated play to The Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. Using what Austin deems “a timeless place where war has raged for hundreds of years” as a thrillingly concrete backdrop, this community-involving co-production between Teatro Vivo and Greenwich and Lewisham Young People’s Theatre (GLYPT) is a daring immersive experience that promises to fire fresh questions at a play that is emphatically about interrogating its audience.
While our nation marks the centenary of the start of the First World War, our newspapers remind us that international conflict is not that far away. According to Austin, the UK has a lot to answer for, and so in this adaptation it isn’t difficult to view Mother Courage’s determination to cultivate new business in war as a metaphor for how our nation is profiting from conflict. Citing our selling of arms to Israel and our complicated relationship with Iraq as live examples, Austin believes that the UK owes a number of explanations to the world: “We are sitting on both sides of the fence [and] are selling and gaining from these wars and we are doing that quite blatantly”. Thinking back to the time Brecht was writing and comparing it to the present day, Austin articulates “he knew that would be the start of the war but he didn’t know when it would happen, and so it was a wake up call […] and I think it absolutely is relevant right now.”
This adaptation of Mother Courage and Her Children came about after a conversation between Austin and Jeremy James, the Artistic Director at GLYPT. After attending Teatro Vivo’s production ofThe Odyssey – a gracefully inclusive adventure around Deptford, where a community focus was strikingly evident – James wanted to collaborate and introduce his apprentice actors to Teatre Vivo’s model of relevant engagement. In Austin’s words, James “could see how we brought the community and a professional piece of exciting theatre together to create something really quite extraordinary and unique to every performance. He was really attracted to that way of working”. It took the two theatre-makers many months of discussion before location, playtext and moment in time all seemed to lock into place, and James suggested Mother Courage, “because of the centenary of the First World War and because of the Arsenal. He wanted definitely to do something at the Arsenal”.
Early in our conversation I note that Austin shares James’s enthusiasm for this remarkable setting, a former munitions factory on the south of the Thames. “We live side by side with our rich and bloody history – and nowhere closer do you live side by side than at the Woolwich Arsenal”, responds Austin, when I ask her why this location was chosen to reinterpret a classic anti-war play. Indeed, history forms the very furniture of this neighbourhood, and it’s easy to understand why Austin finds this part of town so aesthetically fascinating, and thematically rich: “you can literally have your flat and there’s a cannon outside, or there’s a massive battleship gun that adorns a park. […] It’s a real reminder that all of these guns and cannons and things are all from our very distant and very recent past”. Just as Brecht originally used a war that finished 291 years before his time of writing to allow his audience some distance when contemplating current affairs, Austen delivers a collage of the historic and the contemporary to broaden the message and enhance the relevance of her adaptation, “so it’s not set in a period so to speak”.
But these weapons aren’t the only things that pepper this landscape, jostling to bring definition and character to this dynamic corner of London. “The other interesting thing about the site is that then you’ve also got all this development”, explains Austin. “All these munitions factories are now turned into flats, and as you wander the site it’s peppered with all of these fabulous billboards with white couples clinking champagne glasses”. This aspirational focus brings a new set of meaning to the adaptation for Austin: “it’s a fascinating sort of juxtaposition to what Mother Courage is struggling to do by using commercialism and trade in order to make her survive through war. She’s as far away from those images as you could possibly get”. Here, Austin is not only connecting local people with their histories, but also tying together different, and somewhat opposing, portraits of Woolwich, her intention being to use theatre to transform this district into a more cohesive place.
I wonder whether, given the specific history of this place and its relevance to those living in or around Woolwich, this adaptation is less alienating than Brecht would’ve intended. With this in mind, I ask Austin whether there’s some inescapable contradiction between the writer’s style and the very notion of immersion. “I’ve grappled with the idea that Brecht wanted to alienate his audience […and] not let them relax into a sense of apathy as they watched something unfold. I feel we’re doing a similar thing but in a more slightly current, contemporary way where we are asking the audience to participate”.
While Brecht prevented his audience from passively absorbing a narrative through the use of uncomfortable seating and stark lighting, Austin keeps her audience mobile in order to keep them thinking about the ideas: “I’m alienating the theatre audience because I’m not allowing them to sit back”. While the methodology may be different, Austin gives her audience members no opportunity to “hang up their brains with their hats in the cloakroom” – to quote the phrase Brecht used to articulate his fear of audience apathy; instead, through the vehicle of immersive theatre, this adaptation offers up powerful new ways of engaging with Brechtian style and, in its focus on Mother Courage’s profiteering, poses playful questions about how communities negotiate change.
Greenwich & Lewisham Young People’s Theatre and Teatro Vivo present Mother Courage and Her Children at Woolwich Aresnal from 5th – 21st September 2014
Article first published at http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/a-timeless-place/