Rehearsals have begun for Mother Courage and Her Children and I’m thrilled to be joining them on their first day as The Royal Exchange’s Observer Monday Director. We are in London with the Headlong team at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, as this is a co-production, and the room is buzzing with nerves and excitement, new and familiar faces. One of whom is Julie Hesmondhalgh, our Mother Courage. I have worked for Julie’s theatre company, Take Back Theatre, in Manchester, who make challenging, political pieces, cradling community and hope in dark times. So, not only is Julie’s vision perfect for the role, but she brings a warm quality to the room almost instantly. A true leading lady.
The company gather for parish notes and introductions. An important preamble to the entire production is the presentation of Equity’s new inclusion policy, declaring the importance of creating a safe environment for all. It is now a vital manifesto every theatre and their unions are striving to present after the #METOO movement. We have members of both the Exchange and Headlong in the room, including the writer Anna Jordan, who has adapted Bertolt Brecht’s classic, and her baby (I love having a baby in a rehearsal room!)
We read through the play with a full company for the first time, and immediately I realise Anna has created a masterpiece. Not only is it up to date and accessible, but extremely relevant. Often with classics, their time comes around again with a synchronicity to current events (in 2016 the war plays of Ancient Greece were doing the rounds) so the brilliance of this play is that it feels imperative that it is performed now. What I notice first is the array of accents in the cast: something that will tease our ears once we are taken on a journey through Brecht’s war-torn, borderless Europe. We see the model box of the set, designed by Joanna Scotcher, and without giving too much away (THERE’S A TRUCK AND JULIE PULLS IT!) she immediately opens our eyes to the relevance to our political climate. It’s stunning.
After lunch we begin with an ice-breaker led by Rose Ayling-Ellis, who will be playing MC’s only daughter Kattrin. Rose is a D/deaf actress, yet the character is a selective mute. She introduces a game to us all which is like a lip-reading version of Chinese whispers, and almost everyone fails! We also create and teach one another our names using sign, led by assistant director Nickie Miles-Wildin.
The actors jump straight into a movement session led by Raquel Meseguer and Christian From. Director Amy Hodge is trying to encourage the company to formulate a movement-based language, and to think and communicate without words where possible in these sessions. Eye contact is often the basis of this unspoken form of communication, something that is going to be important for the company as they move into running the play. This is initiated through a series of ball games and contact-led improvisations. Something that can be awkward as hell for many, yet this lot leapt right into it and in doing so became quickly comfortable with one another. This groundwork, I realise, is also a way to building a strong ensemble as well as nuanced relationships between characters.
The actors had their first session with musical director Jim Fortune who has composed the songs for this production. The music is wild, eclectic and unpredictable: very much like the world of our play. One of my favourite parts was watching Actor/Musician Nick Pynn improvise with various instruments and gadgets throughout the company learning the first song. The foundations of this production have been built beforehand by Amy and her fellow creatives and the actors are the last piece of the puzzle. So much work has been done up until this point, yet it is also intriguing to watch them work things out, as a company, along the way like this. Upon hearing the songs I’m almost certain that this production is going to be a smash. It’s raucous, surprising and brimming with flair in all areas. I’m very excited to see the pieces coming together next week!
Mother Courage and Her Children runs 8 February - 2 March 2019, Theatre