Review: The Caucasian Chalk Circle


“How to Deal with Brecht?”
for remotegoat on 16/02/11

Bertolt Brecht wrote The Caucasian Chalk Circle in America in 1945 whilst in exile from Germany where, as a Marxist, he feared for his life. The action of the bulk of the play is from 1918-1921 in Georgia, a time and place also riven by war, and where social stability is turning upside down. Bedevilled by wars as we still are, and with people’s revolutions breaking out in the Middle East, it seems apt for Blackeyed Theatre Company to be revisiting the work of one of the most overtly pro-plebeian and moral dramatists in the canon of theatre history.

The main plotline involves Grusha, a servant girl who rescues the baby son of her mistress, the governor’s wife, after a coup d’etat breaks up their home. Grusha (finely played by Anna Glynn) must then roam far and wide to avoid repercussions and keep the baby safe, and in doing so, makes personal sacrifices and encounters sundry crooks, oddballs and challengers. In the denouement, an anarchic judge, Azdak (played too politely by Ruth Cataroche, who is elsewhere very good), presides in judgement over the relative claims of the biological mother and Grusha using the eponymous chalk circle as a means to decide who has the greater right to keep the child, she who bore him, or she who cared for him. A narrator, Arkadi (a very strong Paul Taylor) sings the storyline and butts into the action throughout, observing Brecht’s dictum to keep us ‘alienated’ i.e. not swept up in the emotion of the story, but keeping our rational heads on.

Blackeyed Theatre bow to Brecht’s trademark ‘epic’ style in using very simple adaptable staging. Five actors play a much larger number of characters with great flair and deftness, as well as playing musical instruments in a satisfying troubadour-like way. The staging and simple timeless costumes, with occasional masks, enhance the sense of the play being a fable (Brecht used a medieval Chinese play and a bible story as sources) and seem meant to convey its durability as a story for all times. The director, Tom Neill, has made some very reasonable choices, and there are a few beautiful theatrical moments, but as the play steadfastly proceeded (it is awfully long), I craved more anarchy, lots more humour and much less honouring of Brecht’s vision. Times have changed radically of late, and it is not enough to project random TV news clips onto the set, as Neill does; the action could have done with more imports from contemporary life, art-forms or pop-culture. Brecht’s piece could easily take such modernising, though a significant edit would have helped concentration: in the audience beside me, schoolchildren texted and chatted, unmoved by the sterling labour onstage.

I’m glad I saw Blackeyed’s version of The Caucasian Chalk Circle: it’s a very accomplished history lesson. But it’s ironic that the parts of the play where I was most involved were those that were the most emotional. Does Brecht’s theory of theatre still hold up today? Discuss that one kids (if you can tear yourselves away from your I-Phones).

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