The Caucasian Chalk Circle
“Brechtian” is the sort of phrase lacklustre undergraduates pepper lacklustre essays with. To say a play is Brechtian is to say that it is the sort of theatre that tries to thwart the audience’s emotional attachment, so that we might focus on causes -not characters or their individual fates. A shame, cause if we were to judge the man himself by this standard, Brecht himself is typically far from Brechtian. He was just too good at writing engaging, sympathetic characters and placing them in compelling situations, and too damn funny. A lot of Brecht in the theatre, though, is pretty Brechtian alright. It can be bleak. It can feel like being lectured at, and the studious Dogma-style stripping away of elaborate sets and costumes, can be, well… dull. By contrast, the elegant Lyceum’s new production, the Caucasian Chalk Circle, is a shambolic, circus of a play. A joy.
It’s not that there aren’t lots of indications that the play tries to reach beyond the stage, members of the cast are playing in the bar before we are seated, the ladies loos (didn’t check the gents) are covered with printed out quotes about inequality. There’s no doubt that this is political, theatre breaking its own boundaries. There is no rise of the curtain, but rather the cast drift onto the stage as the audience arrive at their seats. The backstage area has been opened up, and made part of the set, props are wheeled about by cast members, So far so Brecht, and so effective.
There are some innovative departures too. Sarah Swire, our singing narrator is every inch the rock chick, full of fire. Her delivery is often “in your face”, which is how Brecht wanted the moralistic elements of his plays to be, right enough, he was the man who said : ‘Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality but a hammer with which to shape it.’… He probably wasn’t imagining this Anni De Franco/ Amanda Palmer hybrid though, and the snarling grungy vocals sometimes get in the way of annunciation, and it’s hard to decipher what our story teller is telling us. . When the accordion comes in, or the play moves into a Country folk style, a soft ballad, an Irish jig, a tango, it’s such a relief to have the narrative communicated in a medium that is genuinely tuneful. Swire’s words become clearer too, and we can hear the language itself, which is, like her voice when it’s allowed to be, genuinely beautiful.
The cast also form the band, and the music, generally, is brilliant, an absorbing mish-mash of cultures and instruments. There’s a brilliant rag-tag quality to their continually dropping character to pick up this or that instrument– a trombone, a washboard, casually passing one another a double-bass. There are some stunning instrumentalists amongst them, certainly enough to pull off a great range of styles and create some genuinely moving and invigorating music, but some are undeniably greener in the gills, musically speaking. My companion, an aficionado of African drumming took umbrage at the djembe “player” who was, in her words “flailing about” with the thing. Then again, you don’t go to Brecht for the djembe. And fair play to them, not only does this cast play a lot of instruments, they each play a lot of parts, and generally do so excellently. A lot of gender-swapped parts here, too, which brings it’s own challenges, both for the actors, and the audience.
Deborah Arnott’s portrayal of the Sergeant a sexual predator and bully brutalised by war, was particularly brilliant a chilling portrayal an convincing, understated, performance of “masculinity.” Andrew Bridgemont’s scheming old mother wan another excellent example- he brought alive Brecht’s witty characterisation and deftly avoided being a “for laughs” granny drag-act. Others were less successful. Both the governor and his wife were played by opposite sex actors, who reduced them to cringingly reductive vaudeville which obscured almost any other aspect of the characters. Liam Gerrard’s Ludovika was straight up drag, and to be fair the audience adored him for it, but I wonder if I was he only one who cringed. One problem with modernising Brecht and that is that some parts are genuinely not modern. Ludovika, -a girl whose father in law has found her with a stable boy, and pressurises her to say she was raped, rather than unfaithful, might have been seen in a more sympathetic light. The famously wise Judge Aztec rules that, because of her downright sexiness, Ludovika has in fact raped the peasant… her beauty was so potent as to render her irresistible, more than asking for it, her appearanceforces the poor young man to have sex with her. Our drag-tastic Ludovika parades about in wobbling heels, simpering with gratitude as she’s belittled, and a moment that should be light is heavy with awkwardness.
How much more there is to like. Adam Bennett, the puppeteer, is genuinely brilliant- truly, he makes some white rags and a polyester mannequin’s head into something genuinely moving. Amy Mason, the actress playing Grusha, does so brilliantly. She looks and sounds like Katie Morag, so sweet, vulnerable and believably flawed. And falls in love with this child so convincingly that by the time of reckoning, in the chalk circle, the scene is tense indeed. A brilliant, challenging, play, brilliantly, and challengingly, played. One to see for sure. FOUR STARS
Reviewer : Katie Craig