Courage on the field of battle;Arts in Scotland;Theatre

27th March 1998 at 00:00
MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN. Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until April 4

That "war is a business proposition", as Mother Courage puts it, is an observation difficult to refute with, for example, recent revelations still ringing in our ears of Swiss dealings in Nazi wealth looted from Jews or, nearer home, the selling of ingredients for chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein while continuing to blockade medical supplies.

But the point of Brecht's epic anti-war play is not simply that war is business carried on by other means, but that being involved in that business corrupts and damages the human spirit.

Mother Courage follows war. With her canteen waggon and her three children, she lives off carnage, a poor survivor and symbol of human plight, a small-time haggler living hand to mouth following the armies through central Europe during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). She loses her children one by one to the war. Rootless and impoverished, she views humanity in terms of exploitation. She cannot afford feelings, not for long anyway.

Perhaps because it avoids any ideological approach, Kenny Ireland's production has a clarity of focus which lets the audience make up their own minds about the characters and actions. He does not overplay the "alienation techniques" so beloved of some Brechtians that can sometimes leave an audience bored rigid, because they can't get involved at all. In this production you do become involved, but the involvement is challenged.

As an introduction to Brecht for senior pupils, it scores high because of its clarity, balance and precision. Contradiction and irony are pointed up and the humour comes through.

"Instead of keeping the peace, the Poles were always meddling in their own affairs," declares Courage, in an ironic justification of the war (prophetically ironic on Brecht's part, writing on the eve of the Second World War, as that was the Nazi justification for invading Poland).

Maggie Steed is a superb Mother Courage, steely yet vulnerable, and she leads a very strong cast which includes David Shaw-Parker in excellent form as the shabby chaplain.

With sponsorship from the Goethe Institute, the Lyceum has produced an excellent study pack for schools and is offering workshops and teach-ins (contact Steven Small, 0131 229 7404) Raymond Ross

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