Wheels within wheels

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The Caucasian Chalk Circledir Lily Sykes9 – 12 NovemberThe Oxford PlayhouseThe Caucasian Chalk Circle is Bertolt Brecht’s epic tale of the struggle for sympathetic reconciliation in a world ravaged by repressive ideology and bloody warfare. The play begins deceptively with a dispute over land in a wartorn Caucasian village between the Galinsk Kolchos, who identify with the land both culturally and ideologically, and the Rrosa Luxemburg Kolchos, who fought for the survival of the valley and now wish to implement modern farming innovations. The illusion of social realism given by this prologue is soon punctuated by the arrival of Singer (Basher Savage), the enigmatic story teller. What follows is Singer’s narration, which shapes the staging of two complementary parables investigating the conflict between reason and emotion which underpins the questions of ownership on which both the stories and the prologue hang.Despite dealing with such weighty concerns, the plays-within-the-play never lose sight of their carnivalesque theatricality. The folk aesthetic of the piece allows the tales to be told through song and live music, as well as giving the actors plenty of room to play up the comic moments. The comedy also has the added function of bringing the audience into sympathy with the characters, a deliberate move which adds poignancy to the serious roles which they later undertake. Of particular note is Mayeni Smart’s impressive Oxford debut as Grusha, whose feisty bawdy of her early verbal sparring with Simon Shashava (Mischa Foster Poole) gives way to a tender humanity as she takes on the role of adoptive mother to the abandoned baby prince Michael. Aazdak also undergoes a similar transformation in the following story, mutating from acerbic goader into compassionate justice, a role which benefits from Basher Savage’s magnetic stage presence.The stories are enacted on a raised stage which creates a division betweenthe narrative space of the stories and the equally fictional outside world. This deliberate highlighting of the fictionality of the stories we see, coupled with the play’s indefinite historicalsetting (which appears to be an amalgamation of several different revolutionary episodes in the history of Tsarist Rrussia, as well as the anonymous Sovietesque committee of the prologue), invites the audience to read the play allegorically. Brecht wrote the play as an alienated émigré from Hitler’s Rreich, and the return to what Brecht termed “the sweet reason of mankind” which the play promotes is a reaction against the irrational and inhuman era of Nnational Socialism.In this ambitious production, director Lily Sykes suggests that The Caucasian Chalk Circle has a more universal appeal. The artful use of a pre-set montage in which footage of Hitler’s Germany is interspersed with images from the major wars of our own age, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, suggests that we are to perhaps draw parallels between the stories we see staged before us and conflicts in our own lifetime.This is a complex play whose staged folk narratives may serve to alienate some first time audiences who are unfamiliar with this mode of drama, while Brecht’s didactic Marxist ideologyin which the rich are portrayed as arrogant and materialistic, with sympathy invariable lying with the peasants, may seem naive to post-Communist audiences. There is also a tendency amongst some of the more minor characters to ham up the play’s comic moments which can underminethe more nuanced work of the main actors. Nnevertheless, strong central performances from Savage, Smart and Tom Lachford carry the play’s message, making for a moving and sophisticated production which is well worth seeing.ARCHIVE: 4th week MT 2005

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