Saturday, 10 March 2007

The Caucasian Chalk Circle

7th March 2007

This masterly and entertaining take on one of Brecht’s greatest works is the third of his plays to be staged in the past year – following on from the National’s Galileo and English Touring Theatre’s Mother Courage. Following a national tour it is now playing at The Cottelsloe Theatre in a version by Frank McGuniness, which was last seen at The Olivier in 1997 performed by Complicite..

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a play within a play – except that the outer core is just a prologue and the only sense in which we leave the play within is when the singer summarises the moral at the end. However, we start with two groups of people – the goatherds and fruit pickers – trying to decide how best to use the valley they live in. The goatherds are the traditional owners of the land, while the fruit pickers want to irrigate it for the benefit of all.

The inner play deals with the problem of who is the ‘real’ mother of an abandoned child rescued from war and brought up by a former servant of the ruling elite. It simultaneously acts as a lesson about how the fruit picker/goatherd conflict should be resolved and also as a demonstration of the administration of justice and exercise of political and social power. Essentially it is a morality play – but not in a sanctimonious sense, as no single character, not even Grusha the saviour of the baby, is sentimentally or superhumanly good.

Directed by Sean Holmes, this production has everything that is to be expected from a staging of Brecht – a strong and versatile ensemble cast with excellent leading performances from Cath Whitefield as Grusha and Nicolas Tennant as Azdac. Although strong, however, their performances never overshadow the rest of the cast – indeed the other cast members are able to show their convincing versatility in a large number of supporting roles. Grusha had a feisty honesty and youth about her, while Azdac is entertainingly dissolute and cunning, yet essentially a sympathetic, not to say morally centred character.

The staging is simple and inventive. Although the way effects are produced is clear to see we are implicitly convinced of their truth. For example, an actor pours water from a jug to mimic the sound of Grusha’s husband having a bath. The husband sits fully clothed in the empty bath, yet we are convinced he is washing himself. In the same way various cast members simulate the crying of the baby through a microphone which – appropriately enough –is connected to a baby amplifier.

There is inventive use of freshly composed music – rather than Paul Dessau’s original – which underscores the fact that Brecht’s work still has something pertinent to say about today and stops the production being an exercise in nostalgia. The music is percussion based, produced on drums, keyboards and glockenspiels together with the cast providing other vocal and percussive effects.

Perhaps the only problem with it all was the performance of the singer – in effect the narrator of the piece - as he felt rather mannered and somewhat at odds with the ensemble. That, though, is a minor point for this is a masterful and hugely enjoyable staging of Brecht’s epic morality play.

Cottesloe Theatre until 14th April

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