The Caucasian Chalk Circle

10/11/2009

Ian Kingsbury went to see The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Nottingham Playhouse


Caucasian Chalk Circle production photo - Photo by Keith Pattison (c)

photo by Keith Pattison

This superb new production of Bertolt Brecht's 1944 play comes courtesy of the Shared Experience theatre company, in conjunction with the Playhouses of West Yorkshire and Nottingham. Staged with original music, a locally-sourced choir, outstanding ensemble and individual performances and a sparky new translation from satirical writer Alistair Beaton, in the parlance of 70s Dutch football, this is total theatre.

The scene opens on a war-torn village in a developing country. A government official attempts to convince squabbling farmers that a Stalin-esque collectivisation drive is necessary to rebuild the country (ever the Marxist, this is Brecht’s vision for a future, prosperous Europe). A singer then turns up with some musicians to help the villagers stage an ancient Chinese parable called 'The Caucasian Chalk Circle' in order to shed light on their own situation (a ‘play-within-a-play’, although the effect is lost somewhat). Told it will last a couple of hours, the official asks witheringly 'couldn't you make it shorter?'. Quite rightly, this is met with an emphatic 'no'. I say quite rightly, because it was the most entertaining, engaging and elevating couple of hours I've ever spent in a theatre.

The villagers’ parable of the chalk circle comprises the rest of the play, which explains why so many of the characters are in fact caricatures, with the exception of Grusha, played with great range and emotional depth by Matti Houghton. If the play, at times, feels like a pantomimic parade of caricatures, it's working as Brecht intended. Brecht rejected the traditional 'cathartic' theatre of the west, because he didn't want his audiences to lose themselves in empathising with his characters, which he believed prevented them from responding critically to the underlying themes and ideas. This production adheres to his 'anti-realist' approach with broad, bawdy humour constantly undercutting the more heartfelt, poignant and perhaps slightly preachy moments.

Caucasian Chalk Circle production photo - Photo by Keith Pattison (c)

Azdak the judge - photo by Keith Pattison

The villagers’ parable tells the story of a noble-born child left behind by a governor and his wife as they flee the outbreak of civil war. The child is rescued by a serving girl, who sacrifices everything to care for and protect him. Once peace is restored, the child's mother (a member of the ruling classes variously maligned by Brecht as ‘mosquitoes’ and ‘pigs’) returns to claim her son. The ensuing custody battle is mediated by a hastily ordained, delightfully unorthodox judge named Azdak who employs the Judgement of Solomon (and a chalk circle) to resolve the dispute.

As I say, the cast gave uniformly riveting performances, but special mention goes to James Clyde whose performance as the sardonic, bibulous Azdak was brilliantly funny and cranked the second half up to theatrical 11. Other standout performances included Nicholas Asbury as a priapic army bully, Christian Patterson as a rather effete, hen-pecked husband and Steven Meo as a drunken Welsh monk presiding over a wedding-cum-funeral.

Brecht was a committed Communist, and whilst some suggest that the passage of time has leached his plays of their relevance, I really can’t see their point. Major themes of this play include the disastrous consequences resulting from the abuse of power by corrupt, vain, tyrannical rulers (Robert Mugabe, anyone?), the stupid and senseless tragedy of war (pretty germane at the moment) and the self-less goodness of ordinary people in spite of a general backdrop of inhumanity (ah, 'twas ever thus).

The staging and direction are both utterly masterful (watch out for the beautifully choreographed slo-mo spade attack!), and the use of puppetry is inspired - it's eerily beautiful, and utterly enchanting. Moments of broad, bawdy comedy are wonderfully balanced with more poignant meditations on war, loss, injustice and other weighty themes perhaps to be expected from such a politically astute playwright as Brecht. With genuine belly-laughs sitting alongside moments of real beauty and uplift, this is pacey, funny, physical, intelligent theatre at its best. It's theatre turned up to 11, it's total theatre.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle plays at the Nottingham Playhouse from Wednesday November 4 to Saturday November 21 2009.

The Nottingham Playhouse website

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