THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE
ROYAL LYCEUM, EDINBURGH
A production of a play from the 20th-century avant-garde is something of a rarity in the output of Mark Thomson, artistic director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum. Which is a pity, as both his award-winning presentation of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (in 2008) and, now, this impressive staging of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle suggest that the classics of European Modernism are his forte.
The play is translated, with political wit and crisp clarity, by Alistair Beaton, and performed in modern dress, with actors playing multiple roles. The result is a Chalk Circle which makes an unarguable case for the continued relevance both of Brecht’s theatrical aesthetics and his allegorical subject matter.
The drama is famously a play of “Chinese boxes”, one story inside another. The Georgian morality tale of the chalk circle – in which the young servant woman Grusha Vashnadze saves the life of child prince Michael in a time of civil war – is told by Soviet peasants in dispute over a strip of land abandoned by retreating Nazi forces.
As the story unfolds, with Grusha weaving her perilous way through a vicious conflict, one is struck by how powerfully the play speaks to the current plights of civilian populations caught up in conflicts such as those in Syria and eastern Ukraine. That is thanks, in no small measure, to the talents of Amy Manson, whose affecting portrayal of Grusha goes directly to the essential courage and selflessness of her character. The heroine becomes, as Brecht no doubt intended, a kind of Everywoman, a universal evocation of the innocent “little person” whose life is turned upside-down by war.
Thomson’s beautifully paced, excellently cast production enjoys similar success in other departments. The live music and song, led by the outstanding Sarah Swire as the singer/narrator, carries out its disruptive-yet-informative purpose whilst combining the disconcerting sounds of Weimar German cabaret with post-punk rock music and country and western.
The production’s many comic touches, such as Jon Trenchard’s grotesque, cross-dressed Governor’s wife, magnify a satirical wit too often overlooked in Brecht’s theatre. By contrast, Karen Tennent’s set, although appropriately non-naturalistic, is too cluttered to really serve the play.
Ultimately, however, this Chalk Circle is another triumph for the Lyceum, and proof positive that Brecht still has much to offer to the 21st-century theatre.
Until March 14. For more information, visit: http://www.lyceum.org.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on February 24, 2015
© Mark Brown