Who cares any more about Bertolt Brecht? His name rarely crops up in theatrical discussion without a righteous sneer about dated Marxist gobbledegook attached. And yet his greatest plays – and The Caucasian Chalk Circle is clearly one of them – define our modern times and debates like no other, and provide great canvases for ensemble acting.
This play, first performed in 1947, is a parable of ownership and responsibility, setting the story of Grusha the peasant girl’s campaign to possess the governor’s child she has saved from a fire within a land dispute between rival agrarian collectives.
It combines elements of Georgian folk drama with post-War realism and an informal, baggy structure pinned together (just about) with songs. Half way through, of one of Brecht’s greatest characters, the drunk and chaotic village scribe Azdak, arrives to sort everything out. The valley is reclaimed by those who can best tend it, and the child is consigned to Grusha in a climactic tug of love with its biological mother.
Frank McGuinness’s flinty Irish version was first given ten years ago in a reconfigured Olivier auditorium, directed by Complicite’s Simon McBurney (who also played a madcap Azdak), with Juliet Stevenson as a grave, long-faced Grusha. McBurney’s brother, the musicologist Gerard, arranged a compelling score of authentic Georgian mountain music.
Sean Holmes – fresh from his triumph with The Entertainer at the Old Vic – does something faster, less folksy and equally vital with the play. This is an NT Education production, in collaboration with the Filter Theatre Company, continuing in the Cottesloe repertoire after completing a nationwide tour.
Brecht’s narrating musician is played by Leo Chadburn as a mixture of Brett Anderson of Suede and Alex in Franz Ferdinand, tall and skinny with slicked down hair and a cool approach to the chill, disconsolate lyrics that point up the action. Chadburn moves among the chaos of the storyline like a ghost, and the company springs to life around him.
Cath Whitefield gives Grusha a convincing headlong energy, while Nicolas Tennant lends Azdak the cheery, bottom-scratching bombast of a slothful hedonist lately roused from a deep sleep. Azdak’s wisdom is the consequence of his own temperamental independence, and his decisions are rooted in commonsense rather than the rulebook.
Anthony Lamble has designed a simple arrangement of flexible screens which Paule Constable lights – and onto which are projected videos and scene headings – with her customary finesse. Others showing up well in the busy ensemble include John Lloyd Fillingham as both army officer and policeman, and Mo Sesay as a fat prince and a mountain bandit. Thusitha Jayasundera is the aggrieved governor’s wife and Gemma Saunders the child’s nanny, but they also embody half the peasants in Georgia. The child himself is represented by an expressive dummy.
- Michael Coveney