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The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Leeds)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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A captivating production borne from a collaboration between Shared Experience, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Nottingham Playhouse, The Caucasian Chalk Circle follows the journey of Grusha (Matti Houghton) in her struggle to save a baby abandoned by his mother, through the dangers of a war-torn city and beyond. She grows to love him as her own child, and when the vain, selfish noblewoman who is Michaelʼs biological mother returns to claim him for the sake of his large inheritance, Grusha must depend on the decision of Azdak, a whimsical judge who is disillusioned with the integrity of justice.

Alistair Beaton's translation is excellent, surpassing high expectations; the clarity and strength of his writing is an apt vessel for Brecht's bold tale of justice, corruption and the challenges to morality that exist in the world. Crucially, clever comic touches by the actors bring out the perceptive, sometimes disturbingly brutal, humour of Beaton's translation: from the sardonic, cynical expressions of Azdak, played with suitable nonchalance by [James Clyde, to the delivery of the repetitive snarl "Oi, dick-'ed" that one bawdy soldier uses to casually address another quieter compatriot.

The Prologue, which as Beaton notes in the copy of his new translation of the play is often left out in productions of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, because of its apparently confusing nature, sets up the ensuing action as a 'play within a play', the inhabitants of a bomb-blasted village set to put on a production. Nancy Meckler's direction plays on this well, emphasising the communal elements of theatre as the swift-paced and subtle ensemble work creates the illusion of a thousand characters populating the story of Grusha. The villagers who open the production help each other don costumes, like a regal purple dress, soldier's camouflage gear, or gold-trimmed military jacket. With each costume change, the villagers take on different characters, and in one pivotal moment, two of the characters are moulded into position by other villagers. Michael, the young child who is the focus of the play's action is just a baby bundle in the first half, but becomes an adorable, wide-eyed puppet boy, deftly controlled by various members of the ensemble.

Ilona Sekacz's mournful folk-inspired score for Brecht's lyrics is at times a little repetitive, but the cast's emotional rendition is emotionally pitch-perfect, with Matti Houghtonʼs solo as Grusha a soft, Yorkshire croon of yearning for the baby she might lose, and the chorus's harmonies are highly evocative in their simplicity. The chorus themselves, dressed in black and seated on tiered benches reminiscent of makeshift European village fetes, with fairy lights strung up in haphazard fashion above their heads, provide an atmospheric cocoon of sound for the action, as well as neatly emphasising its nature as a performance, with its members watching and reacting to the events onstage before them.

ʙrimming with neat comic turns from Josephine Butler as Natella, Michaelʼs shrieking, detestable, wealth-obsessed mother, and Clare Perkins in numerous guises - a flighty farmerʼs wife, or a snobby and supercilious noblewoman - The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a beautiful, thought-provoking morality tale with heart and depth.

- Vicky Ellis


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