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The Caucasian Chalk Circle

by on 7 October 2022

Wisdom of Solomon

The Caucasian Chalk Circle

by Bertolt Brecht, adapted by Steve Waters

Rose Original Productions at The Rose Theatre, Kingston until 22nd October

Review by Celia Bard

This play has its roots in Hebrew lore, in the story recorded at 1 Kings 3:16-18 of two mothers claiming before King Solomon that each was the real mother of an infant son.  Should you be curious as to how the dispute is resolved in this version of the story, do go and see this superb production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle performed by a talented and highly versatile group of actors skilled in all aspects of acting, dance, movement and song.  The production is lengthy, but it succeeds in entertaining and enthralling an audience throughout, as judged by the rapturous applause of the audience at the end of the show. 

Steve Waters’ adaption of the play is close in spirit to the original.  It is about the impact of war on people.  This version relocates the story from warring Soviet communes to a modern-day refugee camp, one in which refugees are divided in their opinions about the use of land, whether the valley should stay as it is or whether it should be given over to the building of a dam.   A singer enters the camp and helps to resolve the conflict through the re-enactment of the story of the Chalk Circle, inviting the refugees to participate and thereby creating a story within a story. 

The Caucasian Chalk Circle provides a good example of what Brecht describes as Epic Theatre and the director, Christopher Haydon and composer, Michael Henry are without doubt sound advocates of this version of theatre.  In this production the audience are never allowed to remain passive, are never to confuse what they see on stage with reality.  They are expected to remain critically aware of the make-believe nature of the stories and scenarios that are being presented on stage.  The success of this depends on the skills of the actors and their ability to caricature the outlandish characters they are portraying.  This troupe of actors are brilliant in fulfilling the demands made on them, including physical feats such as clambering up and down ladders, dancing, miming, mimicry, singing, stepping in and out of different characters.  At times it seems as if we are in the land of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and the festival of misrule.  This, of course, is a device that helps alienate the audience from reality and instead to awaken the minds of an audience so that the play writer can communicate his version of the truth, which is concerned, in this instance, with raising questions such as what kind of wisdom is needed after a war is over, and how do people stay true to their humanity when they have no resources left — situations that the majority of us are only too aware of in our troubled 21st Century world.

Intrinsic to the play is the examination of moral values such as the natural justice of a woman’s love for a child, the love of people for a place lived in for centuries, the common humanity of individuals when facing hardship, the exploitation of others.  Music is particularly important in this production, and it is different from what an audience may normally expect, for its songs are used to make comment upon actions and not merely to underline the meaning of words.  In this sense it is narrative driven.  At times, the songs create an echo of other folk songs drawn from other countries, at other times it’s as if the singer or singers are experimenting with the tonal rhythms of the human voice.  The result is pure magic.   Zoe West, as the guitarist, singer and narrator is superb in this role.  Some of her asides are aimed directly at the audience, drawing them into her spell.  Like all the other actors in the ensemble she is a strong, physical actor and has great stage presence. 

Likewise, Carrie Hope Fletcher who so convincingly plays Grusha Vashnadze, the young maid who saves the baby from imminent death and then at great danger to herself rears him herself.  Interestingly this the one role in the play that is the closest to realism.  And this is not without reason, for Grusha is the character who most closely represent the concept of truth, and here she parallels the symbolism of the chalk circle.  Fletcher gives a memorable performance both for her acting and her vocal singing prowess. 

There are so many outstanding performances in this production.  Jonathan Slinger is mesmerising as Azdak, the corrupt judge, who eventually undergoes some sort of sea-change when having to judge the battle that goes on within the chalk circle.  Joanna Kirkland is memorable in all the different roles she undertakes, such as a UN representative, the self-centred governor’s wife, the highly unrelenting moralistic wife of Grusha’s brother, Laventi.  Bridgitta Roy excels as the cook, and one will not easily forget her comedic portrayal as the mother of the supposedly recently diseased man, Jessup, with whom Grusha agrees to marry in order to protect the child.  Simon, Grusha’s fiancé, played by Nickcolia King-N’da matches Grusha’s sincerity in the portrayal of this character.  Two outrageous portrayals are provided by Ronny Jhutti, as the corporal who attempts to steal Michael after recognising the child, and Shiv Rabheru as Lavrenti who quite bravely, despites his wife’s strong disapproval, provides temporary accommodation for his sister and Michael.  They excel in all the other roles they are required to act out; not forgetting Adeola Yemitan, as Aide and the numerous characters she plays, which she does with humour and great acting skills.  Daniel Aiden Matembe gives a pleasing cameo performance as Michael in the final scene of the play and delights the audience with his dancing prowess.

The play relies heavily on narration, much of which is delivered by the ensemble representing people from all different walks of life.  Peasants, soldiers, government officials, merchants, farmers, servants, lawyers, and doctors are all portrayed.  By using this tenuous group of performers to inhabit the many minor roles, the playwright creates a tale on the possibility of a more fluid social structure with the promise of a greater degree of social mobility, a theme that Brecht liked to explore in many of his plays.  Satire is another device that is much in evidence in the play and is used to lambast things such as rigid conventions and to mock religion.

There is much in this production to admire, to laugh at, to ponder upon, to feel outraged, to be moved by.  Although the production is long, it moves at a tremendous pace, so you are not conscious of time passing.  Throughout your mind is active, reflecting, asking questions.  This is a play well worth seeing especially in such a well-equipped theatre as the Rose and the facility it provides, allowing production companies to stage imaginative and innovative shows such as The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

Celia Bard, October 2022

Photography by Iona Firouzabadi

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