Preview: Mother Courage and Her Children

When Julie Hesmondhalgh was asked what classic play she’d like to do, she reached back to her A-level days for one of Brecht’s greatest works.

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“You wont be seeing me in the Sound of Music anytime soon,” laughs Julie Hesmondhalgh, quashing any press speculation that her latest role as Mother Courage, which requires her to sing, will be a game-changing career move.

She’s not a born Maria, she confirms. “Or indeed a Mother Superior! It isn’t my breakaway role, you know. If I could sing and dance it’s all I’d do – I’d be in musicals all day long. My absolute dream as a child was to be like Julie Andrews or Doris Day.”

The titular role in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children is comfort-busting all round for the Accrington-born actor. “It’s quite a sexy, punky version of it. I’ve got to live up to that now. I exist in this world of really cool design and I’m thinking, god, I’m going to have to step up my cool.”

Widely considered Brecht’s greatest work, the anti-war, anti-capitalist, epic drama follows the matriarch during the Thirty Years War as she carts around her children, flogging everything she can to survive, sometimes at a hefty personal cost. Writer Anna Jordan’s adaptation for Headlong Theatre is a dystopian retelling.

“The new version’s set in the future and war’s been raging for 20 years. Europe doesn’t exist anymore and countries have been replaced by a grid system,” says Hesmondhalgh. “It’s a nonsensical war about people taking over grids, and there’s no sense of nationality or allegiance even. It’s just about the people in power keeping the war going, because when a country’s at war you don’t have to think about education or housing – the mass population is dealt with.

“So it’s a very dystopian view, and specifically a post-Brexit view, but more than that, post-Europe. It’s all fallen to pieces – the house of cards has fallen. So it is a big comment on not only war but on capitalism, and the way that one feeds the other and turns us all into tinkers and whores, doing our best to survive.”

Despite its Mad Max makeover Hesmondhalgh says there is enough there for A-level students to get their teeth into and Brecht purists should approve of the fact that structure and plot stay the same.

Aside from the political nature of the play, the role’s quite a departure from Hesmondhalgh’s previous stage credits, which have largely come out of new writing that the actor, who made her name on Coronation Street before going on to star in hit series including Happy Valley and Broadchurch, put her weight behind. But three years ago, when she was performing in Wit at the Royal Exchange, artistic director Sarah Frankcom asked her what play she’d like to do.

“A lot of actors have this secret hankering to play a role and I’ve never had that. I’ve never been like: ‘Until I play my Cleopatra…’

“I love new ideas and young writers but someone else said what about Mother Courage, and I’d seen this seminal performance of it at the Contact Theatre in 1987 when I was studying it for my A levels. Ellie Haddington was the lead in it and she absolutely knocked it out of the park.”

Hesmondhalgh specified she would want it to be a modern version about warfare and the displacement of people. Serendipitously, Jordan rang the Royal Exchange a week later with the same idea. The actor says she relished the thought of playing somebody far away from who she is, laughing as she points out she shares none of Mother Courage’s business acumen or survival skills.

“This is probably the nearest to a baddie I’ve ever played. But you have to find the humanity and actually with Mother Courage, it’s not hard because even though she sometimes makes the wrong choice or the choice that leads to something devastating, she’s very quickly in a moment trying to do the right thing, which is not always easy in a situation.”

Hesmondhalgh, mother of 14 and 17-year-old girls with her partner, the writer Ian Kershaw, says there’s been a big cultural shift in the way we think about children and motherhood in recent years.

“It’s become OK to think of our children as the most important children in the world – so you see it when people are paying for private medicine or not immunising their kids, leading to huge public health problems. It’s protecting your own at the expense of the wider community.

“I think that’s really present in this play. People talk about Mother Courage sacrificing her own children for her own ends, but I think it’s a lot more complicated than that because actually, a lot of the time, all she’s trying to do is survive and keep her little unit alive in terrible war-torn times.”

Hesmondhalgh, who set up Take Back Theatre collective as an artistic response to the politics of austerity, is known almost as much for her activism as she is for her acting. She reckons that Brecht, who revolutionised theatre’s bourgeois values to bring about political change, would be writing plays about the rise of the far right in Europe if he were alive today.

“It’s amazing Brecht’s plays are still relevant and part of you feels, yeah, and on it goes, we don’t learn from history, we make the same mistakes. It’s a rich canvas for any artist at the moment because there’s so much to make sense of.”

She believes strongly in the transformative power of theatre, saying she’s seen proof too many times.

“It feels like in these very divisive times when we are more and more spending time on our phones reaching out through screens, to actually go somewhere and sit in silence with people and watch something feels like quite a radical act.

“Our Take Back events are rough and raw and one night only but always packed out because there’s an appetite for it.

“People say it’s like preaching to the converted but actually there’s so much emboldening of the other side of things, the people who want to divide us and want us to fear each other, that to have those evenings where you’re with likeminded people, having conversations about things that matter, are emboldening for us, and absolutely what we need.”

Mother Courage and Her Children is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, 8 Feb-2 March

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