The image of Mother Courage dragging her cart and her children across war-torn Europe is one of the most famous in 20th century theatre. Shrewd and unsentimental, Courage believes war is good for business and that she can keep her children untouched by the perils and savagery around her.

Bertolt Brecht wrote the play in exile as a warning against the gathering forces of Hitler.

In Pamela Rabe the Sydney Theatre Company has an actress with the necessary power and agile individuality to play Courage. She’s breathtaking when Courage contemplates in cruel silence the bullet-riddled corpse of her son, clutching her truly mute daughter and giving away nothing to the soldiers watching her reaction. Elsewhere Rabe is the swaggering street-wise clown with a sharp nose for opportunity.

She well serves Brecht’s intention to write a long and raucous entertainment, studded with songs and vaudeville but with unavoidable insights into the true politics of war. In fact the songs, here reworked by composer Alan John and his small jazz orchestra, are deliberately rough and discordant so we aren’t distracted from the message by any easy sentimentality.

Courage is the centre of the wheel, but Brecht’s masterpiece demands the sort of inventive, all-participating ensemble cast in the tradition of his own Berliner Ensemble. It’s an ideal vehicle then for this new group of permanent STC actors committed to working together for the next two years. Pity though they didn’t keep it for later.

This production from Robyn Nevin has a pedestrian pace; the actors don’t (yet) leap and fire with a unity of purpose and imagination obvious in the best ensembles. The storytelling marches through illustrative wartime chapters but often lacks fine focus, even if Brecht should have had no complaint with this clear modern adaptation by Britain’s famed playwright David Hare.

Hayley McElhinney is riveting though as the mute daughter, and John Gaden and Colin Moody give good support as, respectively, the priest who trades his religion for compromise and the cook attracted to the practical assets of Mother Courage.

This is not knockout theatre but an opportunity to see this wise great classic on how a tall battler is finally bled silent by having her assets, her children and her humanity stripped slowly away.

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Mother Courage And Her Children is at the Sydney Theatre Company Wharf Theatre until 8 July.

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