The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Bertolt Brecht translated by Frank McGuinness
Unicorn Theatre

Kiran Sonia Sawar as Grusha and Dom Coyote as the Singer/Narrator Credit: Manuel Harlan
Kiran Sonia Sawar as Grusha and Christopher Wright as her "dying" peasant husband Credit: Manuel Harlan
Nabil Shaban as Azdak Credit: Manuel Harlan
Mia Soteriou as Farmer's Wife Credit: Manuel Harlan
Kiran Sonia Sawar as Grusha Credit: Manuel Harlan
Tom Espiner as the Prince Credit: Manuel Harlan

This lively and fluid production of Brecht’s version of the ancient Chinese story that parallels the judgement of Solomon is well matched to its target audience of eleven and upward and does so by staying very Brechtian.

From the start, director Amy Leach and her designer Hayley Grindle emphasise that this is theatre. The circular wooden disk which forms the main playing space is backed to the rear wall by a clutter of props, costume racks, heaped cloths, hanging ropes, a hospital bed, chairs and scaffolding while a white cotton cloth hangs above it. Instead of Brecht’s prologue, in which two collective farm groups compete for land, they insert a more direct and more obviously political opening.

With the white cloth lowered, the cast chat to their audience, ask these early teenage school pupils how many care about politics (about half the hands go up), how many have read the play (few) and mention the original prologue with its debate between to groups of collective farmers.

They explain that Brecht was a communist and de-demonise the word by saying he believed everyone should have access to wealth and an equal share of it. They refer to the power of supermarket chains and small farmers, the growing gap between rich and poor with 1% of people owning 48% of wealth. “This play,” they say, “is about who has the right to have what.”

Dom Coyote, who will become Brecht’s singer-narrator, then comes forward and asks the audience if they are ready. With a touch to the screen of his smartphone, he sets the drama in motion.

On the lowered cloth, the birth of a baby is played out by shadows. When it rises, the story begins of the savage coup in a modern Georgian city that Tom Espiner’s Prince stages, executing the Governor whose grand wife flees, leaving her baby behind to be picked up by laundry maid Grusha, who has has just got engaged to Caleb Frederick’s handsome young soldier.

Kiran Sonia Sawar’s delightful young Grusha flees to the mountains (white cotton peaks and a full moon rising behind her), putting the child Michael’s needs above her own until the coming of peace sends her back to the city.

Having followed her adventures, the play introduces another story, that of wily Azdak who, unsuspectingly, shelters the refugee Grand Duke. Later, taken by the Prince's soldiers to the city, he plays the role of the accused in a mock trial to test a new judge and finds himself chosen to be judge instead, eventually leading to him presiding at the trial to decide who has more right to be Michael’s mother, his birth one or Grusha.

Nabil Shaban is this quick-thinking old fox, quickly in command of all situations, a charismatic character in the folktale that Brecht is telling to make his political point.

Emily Wachter plays the Governor’s wife and other powerful posh people, Mia Soteriou her rich friend and a number of peasants and Christopher Wright more peasants and authority figures.

Everyone except Shaban doubles, with rapid costume changes preventing confusion, and this, along with the strong sense of theatre in the staging, helps to establish that Brechtian distancing that enables the audience to both feel with Grusha and question judgements and the position of both prole and patrician.

Singer Coyote is also composer and player of some beautiful oriental flavoured music which adds to atmosphere but at the same time his sometimes sung, sometimes spoken presentation of the songs in which Brecht gives the thoughts of a character and comments on their situation nudge the audience into making their own appraisal.

Frank Guinness’s lyrical translation is delightful and, once the play proper is started, the production has a light touch that moves things on rapidly. It is well played and makes entertaining and lively theatre while still carrying its strong moral message.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton