The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Bertolt Brecht, in a version by Frank McGuinness
National Theatre Touring in the Cottesloe
(2007)

Production photo by Ed Dimsdale

As one of its lesser-known strands, the National Theatre has a touring arm, which stops briefly in the Cottesloe each year. Those who are lucky enough to get tickets to see Sean Holmes' inventive take on Brecht might wonder why it won't get a chance to join the permanent repertoire.

The backstage team is having a storming week. Holmes and designer Anthony Lamble were also behind The Entertainer at the Old Vic.

Here, their much simpler staging has to be portable, so the setting is minimal while at least conveying the crucial difference between the haves and have-nots in Brecht's stage version of a road movie. The technique of showing the sound team at work that proved so successful on Waves in the same space also helps to condense the production.

As Holmes intended, this ensemble production with music that, with the exception of a brief spell of ska, sounds as if it was influenced by Nick Cave, has a European or Brechtian feel to it. This is primarily thanks to Arkadi, The Singer (Leo Chadburn), who keeps the story moving by belting out ballads that are heavy on rhythm but often lacking in melody.

The adaptable team of actors play multiple parts as they relate a classic tale. The date is 1945 and a group of Georgian villagers has a big decision to take, broadly to follow the old collective ways or try something new that will irrevocably change their lives in mysterious capitalist ways.

The bulk of the play consists of a Chinese parable that eventually builds to a Solomonic decision set up by Nicolas Tenant's Azdak, a peasant judge who knows his liquor better than he does his law. Before we finally get to a really satisfying ending, there is much to enjoy on the journey.

The story starts as war is waged and, following the death of the Governor, his greedy wife cares more for her clothes than her infant son.

Young Michael is picked up by the uneducated Grusha (Cath Whitefield) who repeatedly demonstrates innate goodness by bravely protecting him during a two year journey that includes many comic or terrifying (or both) adventures.

Grusha, who endures humiliation and starvation as well as large doses of pain in looking after her adopted son, even submits to marriage to a semi-corpse, who miraculously retreats from death's door when he hears that the war is over.

After the interval, the tone changes as we enter an Alice in Wonderland courtroom and enjoy much ribald comedy in Frank McGuinness's modern translation. At this stage, after a side-splittingly funny food fight, Sean Holmes works rather too hard on the tricks, chucking in every comic touch that he can think of to the extent that focus is in danger of disappearing.

However, there are many laughs during a breathless three hours that lead up to the test of the chalk circle and a victory for justice and the people.

Holmes and McGuinness have made Brecht both enjoyable and accessible. They deserve to have a sell-out tour and with the NT imprimatur and a great show, probably will.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher