The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Bertolt Brecht in a new translation by Alistair Beaton
Produced by Shared Experience, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Nottingham Playhouse
West Yorkshire Playhouse
(2009)

Production photo

I rate this production very highly, from the the pleasingly intricate and well lit set to its simple, clear, eye-tingling, would-be truths of the final lines; 'Horses to good horsemen/ So the horses thrive/ And the earth to good farmers/So that the earth may thrive'.

If only! But for a little while towards the end of the play, decency and good will dominate.

But it's a long struggle they've had, through civil war and avarice, lewdness and corruption. It's easy to write off Brecht's characters as caricatures. They are not and it's a mistake to play them so. It's just that he wrote closer to the truths of our beings than many can recognise. This production hits a happy medium.

Here this portrayal of humanity with all our strengths and flaws is at its best in James Clyde's superbly comic and yet moving capture of Azdak. An all too human humanitarian and self-declared intellectual, Azdak finds himself elected judge. It is he who presides over the chalk circle as strident blue-blood mother and loving, adoptive mother struggle for possession of a child (beautifully represented by a puppet).

But by then we've taken a long trip through a war and culture shattered Eastern Europe, led by peasant girl, Grusha (Matti Houghton), carrying the Governor's discarded baby to safety in the mountains. We pass through many scenes and characters, aided (sometimes confusingly in the first half) by a whacking girt choir. There are times when the first half loses pace and risks losing audience attention. That we stayed with it is largely due to Houghton's presence and her portrayal of innocence and strength of purpose. Splashes of music, especially Katherine Toy's sprightly accordion also help.

Come the second half and the longuers are soon forgotten. Everything cranks into place and the play gallops. Meckler's direction sparkles, there are breath-holding moments of beauty, theatricality and truth. Put them together and you have great theatre - this production hits the button more than once. And even though the heart expanding rightness of the play's end is tempered by our knowledge that we are, in a sense, back where we started, we are now better equipped to face reality, just as the characters in the play.

It's a story of hope: hope in a corrupt world, hope for we damaged creatures who people it. And this new translation by Alistair Beaton, who could have wooed us with endless wit, is superbly disciplined, honourable, and a joy to see realised so well.

Running to 17th October

Steve Orme reviewed this production at Nottingham Playhouse. It was also reviewed by Howard Loxton at the Unicorn Theatre.

Reviewer: Ray Brown