A modern master of the ‘play within in a play’, Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre piece The Caucasian Chalk Circle is as relevant a political commentary today as it was in the 1940s. Amidst a revolution, the rich choose their wealth and leave humanity behind to fend for themselves – it is the poor that preserve human life and uphold it as an ideal. This is exactly the case with Grusha (Colette O’Rourke), a maid in the governor’s household, who steals away in the night with the governor’s baby after wife Natella (Carly Thoms) is too busy packing her material things. Natella is clearly inspired by Madonna in Ricky Dukes’ updated version – tinsel scarves and red ballet skirts, like a child playing at dress-up.
There’s a common theme throughout the first half of this production that screams style over substance. Dukes has updated the classic text with devices that may appeal to a younger generation of theatregoers – apparently, Brecht is now a GCSE text, which explains the mass onset of school children attending the performance. But in doing so, the content of The Caucasian Chalk Circle is lost, Brecht’s talent for nuances within dialogues swept aside to focus entirely on the overarching themes and setting for his larger, more epic scenes. Crossing a rotten wooden bridge during Grusha’s escape into the mountains is performed over a table scattered with ‘wet floor’ signs; the music is heavily synthesised and the mob gyrates in ritualistic repetition; the Fat Prince (Tom Woodward), leader of the rebellious people, takes selfies with adoring fans. Even the initial escape into the mountains, imagery of a refugee fleeing a terrorised warzone, is diluted into robotic dance and strobe effects. Does this make Brecht accessible, or does it strip away all meaning from the story and overly simplify the concepts for a younger audience?
Certain of Dukes’ ideas are well realised and balanced – baby Michael is tossed around like a ragdoll, thrown in boxes and carelessly discarded as a prize instead of a person; the monotony of packing up the governor’s house is shrill and cyclical, everyone moving boxes round and round but getting nowhere, except Natella (Thoms) who stands above the din and barks meaningless orders. The second half is more effective in updating the classic text with the appearance of Judge Azdak (Owen Pullar) and his democratic election in accordance with mob rule. Samuel J Weir, an orchestrator of this farce, is particularly effective as a crazed speaker for the masses. Dukes whips up a fantastical picture that is an appropriate analogy for political chaos – it draws in the audience and convinces them of the absurdity of the situation. But to be more impactful, there needs to be a contrast with the first half to accentuate the true madness of such anarchy.
The ultimate choice between Grusha and Natella is the most poignant – a question of nature vs. nurture that can be spoken plainly and hit home with any audience. This is where The Caucasian Chalk Circle gains its title, place the child in the middle and see who he chooses. Brecht is able to fuse this issue, in many plays the key and only theme that receives all attention, seamlessly into a production that combines several important debates and give them all equal weighting. Dukes is less successful in ensuring that each of these is updated in equal measure.
Adaptor/ Director: Ricky Dukes
Producer: Lazarus Theatre
Writer: Bertolt Brecht, translated by Frank McGuinness
Design: Sorcha Corcoran; Rachel Dingle (costume); Stuart Glover (lighting); Neil McKeown (sound)
Cast: Colette O’Rourke; Carly Thoms; Tom Woodward; Owen Pullar; Robert Metson; Lakesha Cammock; Elizabeth Appleby; Samuel J Weir; George Howard; David Thackeray
Production shots by Adam Trigg
The Caucasian Chalk Circle plays Greenwich Theatre until 1 April. For more information and to book tickets, see the website.