Mother Courage and Her Children review – Julie Hesmondhalgh is the business

War – what is it good for? Business, Mother Courage would reply. When he wrote Mother Courage and Her Children in 1939, Brecht made that point by setting his play during the 17th-century thirty years’ war – a distant, bloody and largely pointless conflict. But in Anna Jordan’s new version for Headlong and the Royal Exchange, the violent logic of capitalism is exposed by looking forward, rather than back.

It’s 2080, Europe is in shreds and the EU is a distant memory. Red and blue armies fight for the few remaining resources, while Mother Courage dispenses food, booze and arms. She rolls in not on a cart, but a knackered ice-cream van – one of many witty touches in Joanna Scotcher’s detailed, post-apocalyptic design. Amy Hodge’s production is economical with its world-building, swiftly plunging us into the grubby heart of a continent that is marching backwards into ignorance, misogyny and despair. Backed by the dystopian chords of Jim Fortune’s score – which has more than a hint of Kurt Weill to it – this is a bleak and brutal place.

Immensely likable, even at her ugliest … Julie Hesmondhalgh with Rose Ayling-Ellis. Photograph: Richard Davenport/The Other Richard

As the eponymous “entrepreneur”, Julie Hesmondhalgh stands astride it all. Hard as the boots on her feet, she thrills to the drum of war and its myriad money-making opportunities. Resisting the temptation to soften Courage’s edges, Hesmondhalgh is steel to the core, even when comforting or mourning the children she tries to protect on the road. Yet somehow she’s also immensely likable, even at her ugliest. And the show still has a heart, most movingly embodied through Rose Ayling-Ellis’s wide-eyed and silently moral Kattrin.

If we were ever in any doubt, the design’s pointed nod to the EU flag makes it clear that this is meant to be the endgame of nationalist isolation and disaster capitalism. But by locating Brecht’s drama in the future, Jordan and Hodge transform it from commentary into dystopia. Rather than analysing, this production warns, shifting emphasis from the past and current casualties of capitalism to the potential – and thus avoidable or ignorable – ravages of the future. Mother Courage’s journey is often compelling, but some of the play’s critique is lost along the way.

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