The Caucasian Chalk Circle
ROYAL LYCEUM, EDINBURGH
Until March 14
The Fair Intellectual Club
SEEN AT TRON THEATRE, GLASGOW
Touring until March 8
SEEN AT TRON THEATRE, GLASGOW
Touring until March 14
Reviewed by Mark Brown
As a vicious civil war between two equally obnoxious forces rages around her, a young, working-class woman adopts an abandoned baby and spends the duration of the conflict keeping herself and the child alive. The Georgian folk tale at the heart of Bertolt Brecht’s great play The Caucasian Chalk Circle resonates powerfully with the current humanitarian crises of civilian populations in modern day Syria and eastern Ukraine.
This thought is ever-present during Mark Thomson’s superb, modern dress production for Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum. Partly, this is down to Alistair Beaton ‘s updated, yet faithful, humorous and sharp translation of Brecht’s allegorical play.
Beaton’s script would come to little, however, unless Thomson and his excellent cast had not understood utterly how to render Brecht’s politicised “epic theatre” as vital drama, rather than as an exercise in moral improvement. As the servant girl Grusha Vashnadze, with the gravely endangered little prince Michael in tow, wends her way between the warring factions, we are treated – in musical interruption, sung narration, satirical wit and smart allegory – to a masterclass in Brechtian technique.
Amy Manson as Grusha, for example, gives a fabulously unostentatious performance which goes straight to the brave, humanistic heart of her character. Brecht is thought to have moulded a 14th-century Chinese story into Grusha’s tale, yet Manson plays her as a universal representative of the decent civilian in wartime (Brecht, one suspects, would have approved).
Elsewhere in the cast, multi-talented Sarah Swire leads the play’s crucially important strand of music, song and narrative with an extraordinary confidence. Christopher Fairbank is flamboyantly satirical as people’s judge Azdak (among others), while Jon Trenchard’s pernicious Governor’s wife exemplifies the political comedy of the production’s use of cross dressing.
Musical director Claire MacKenzie has, with startling success, crashed various popular musics (including, curiously, country and western) into Paul Dessau’s original Weimar score. Less successful is Karen Tennent’s stage design, which, while holding to Brecht’s eschewal of naturalism, clutters the stage with superfluous bric-a-brac.
As Liam Gerrard’s “cheap monk”, who speaks in a distracting, southern United States drawl, swigs booze from a bottle, one can’t help but think that director Thomson has missed a trick. Surely, here in Scotland, a boozy monk should be on the Buckfast.
Some disappointing design and an ill-considered choice of alcoholic beverage aside, however, this production is a beautifully paced and brilliantly engaging credit to both Brecht and the Lyceum.
The Fair Intellectual Club, by comedian-turned-playwright Lucy Porter, is, sad to say, less engaging. Directed by Marilyn Imrie for Stellar Quines theatre company, this three-hander, which premiered at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, alights promisingly upon the true story of the young women who, in defiance of the misogynistic proscriptions of the day, established a thinkers’ discussion group for the female sex in Edinburgh in 1717.
Boasting a fine cast of Jessica Hardwick, Caroline Deyga and Samara MacLaren, the piece turns a comic eye to the serious pressures faced by the club. The need for secrecy elicits an inevitable humorous reference to the famous single rule of David Fincher’s Fight Club, while the economic and social imperatives forcing one of the young women into marriage to a decrepit older gentlemen is a constant source of bleak comedy.
That Porter’s play is sprinkled with well-observed gags is no surprise. The problem comes in the stilted structure of the piece.
There are, in the play’s chosen period and subject matter, echoes of Iain Heggie’s superb monodrama The Tobacco Merchant’s Lawyer, in which the titular protagonist balks at a fortune teller’s prophecy that women will one day study at Glasgow University. The humour of Porter’s piece isn’t quite as sharp as Heggie’s, but, more importantly, it has little of the Glasgow writer’s sense of variation and rhythm.
The result is a short play which, despite its brevity, lacks momentum and renders a fascinating subject less interesting than it should be.
If Stellar Quines piece could benefit from the intervention of a skilled dramaturge, so, too, could The Effect, the latest work from Borders-based theatre company Firebrand. An unlikely romantic comedy-cum-social drama of boy-meets-girl during the trial of a psychiatric drug, Lucy Prebble’s play would, I’m certain, be enhanced by some judicious cutting and structural reorganisation.
Director Richard Baron has a strong cast at his disposal, with recent Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduates Scarlett Mack and Cameron Crighton playing young trial participants Connie and Tristan, and Pauline Knowles and Jonathan Coote as psychotherapists Lorna and Toby. However, both Baron and his actors have their work cut out trying to overcome the writer’s overloading of her script.
Connie (a medical student) and Tristan (a regular trial participant of a seemingly itinerant disposition) are an unlikely couple. Toby thinks, in Lorna’s words, that their romantic attachment might indicate that his drug is “Viagra for the heart”.
On top of this central relationship Prebble places Lorna’s troubled psychiatric history, the related personal history which Lorna and Toby share, and a moment of implausibly unprofessional conduct on Lorna’s part.
The piece is overlong (at two hours, 20 minutes, including interval), overwrought and garishly designed by Ken Harrison (who, with his flashing lights and video projections, takes the clinical modernity of the subject too literally). One senses that, beneath the play’s poorly arranged layers, there is an interesting drama about the ethics of the pharmaceutical industry.
For tour dates for The Fair Intellectual Club, visit: http://www.stellarquines.com.
For tour dates for The Effect, visit: http://www.firebrandtheatre.co.uk.
A slightly truncated version of these reviews was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 1, 2015
© Mark Brown