The Caucasian Chalk Circle is not a play to be approached flippantly, and that holds true both for theatre companies and theatre goers. Brecht’s style deliberately aims not only to educate but to alienate, and for this to be engaging requires commitment from both sides of the curtain. Luckily, flippancy is not something student theatre company Screw The Looking Glass’s latest Playhouse production could possibly be accused of. Every last chalk mark of this seamlessly crafted show has been chosen with care, presenting an unflinchingly Brechtian performance of a challenging piece of theatre.
The play is often subject to the ‘Hamlet’ predicament of being pared down into a more palatable bite; yet faithful even to the commonly axed prologue, the show opened on a group of Caucasian villagers meeting to decide the future of their valley. Resolution reached, the villagers are presented with an ancient Chinese folk tale reflecting the wisdom of their choice, narrated by the ethereal ‘Singer’ Arkadi (Jack Sain). This is the parable of servant girl Grusha, (Constance Greenfield) who rescues the child of a governor during the disarray of revolution. On the eventual return of the narcissistic birth mother, Grusha’s right to the boy is contested using the ‘Chalk Circle’ test, akin to the Judgement of Solomon, leaving everyone with their just deserts.
Greenfield’s fiery, sassy self-assurance prevents her role as moral heroine from becoming sappy, and sets up a powerful contrast with the vainglorious governor’s wife Natasha Abashvili, (Grainne O’Mahony) who combines hyperbolic vanity with poignant hints of self awareness. With the roar of Civil War outside the palace, Natasha sit pathetically clutching a sea of lavish gowns she refuses to abandon, only to suddenly wonder, “You don’t think they’d do anything to me?” The question hangs disturbingly unanswered.
Multi-roling allows the troop to flaunt their evident talent, playing everything from wheezing pensioners to prancing horses with equal ease. Florence Brady shines as both snobby aristocrat and world weary peasant, grimly debating the correlation between the fee and piety of marriage officiates. Luke Rollason, as the rascal elected Judge presiding over the Chalk Circle case, injected a madcap, energetic boisterousness to the second half of the show, which came as a very welcome refreshment. Prancing around flamboyantly in his pyjama suit, reminding us, “I’m not even wearing any trousers!”, he judges a girl’s particularly attractive bum as making her guilty of having “raped the poor man!” It is proof that Brecht can be funny, too.
Richly evocative yet deconstructed set design made full use of six canvas sheets hung from poles at the back of the stage, back-lit to cast striking shadow illustrations of everything from revellers at a tavern to the beheading of the Fat Prince. Dramatic lighting choices also created hauntingly vivid images, such as Grusha clung gymnastically to the side of the stage in a hairbreadth escape from soldiers, pinpointed by an unforgiving spotlight.
This is an impeccably acted, lavishly designed production, which I feel sure even the most pious of Brecht devotees would be unable to fault. At three and a half hours, Brecht devotees are also its best audience – but it would be impossible for anyone to leave unaffected; so even Brecht himself would surely be satisfied.