After a Brecht-free¹ 2010, a chance right here in Greenwich to see The Caucasian Chalk Circle
, the play of his I most enjoyed reading but which I've never seen on stage before. As it's not a producing house you never know what you're going to get at Greenwich Theatre, different touring companies are of wildly varying quality but on this evidence Blackeyed Theatre are right up there - everyone involved in this ambitious production could hold their own if thrown into the likes of the National or the West End. And it certainly is
ambitious, Tom Neill's production using just five actors (Ruth Cataroche, Lee Drage, Anna Glyn, Greg Patmore and Paul Taylor) to tell Brecht's three-hour epic with its dozens of characters, stories within-stories and political allegories wrapped into fairytales. The programme notes even claim it was done in just two-an-a-half weeks of rehearsal, although it's now been touring for a few weeks so the performance I saw would have had additional time to be fine-tuned. However long it took, the results are impressive.
Opening with a framing device of a land dispute, we then get the story of baby Michael (played by a violin in a blanket,) son of the local governor and abandoned by his mother when a bloody revolution deposes him. Servant Grusha looks after him despite the dangers she faces as a consequence. Then there's the separate story of Azdak, the village idiot who becomes a judge; he will have to act as a sort of anti-Solomon when the birth mother returns to claim Michael (and his inheritance) back from the woman who's been raising him. With the aid of grotesque masks (by Fiona Davis) and a simple set (by Victoria Spearing) mainly consisting of a large wall on castors, the actors bring Grusha's journey over the mountains to life as well as the characters who occasionally help and mainly hinder her. There's a relentless energy and Frank McGuinness' translation gives them plenty of opportunity to bring variety to their performances. Neill and his cast are also endlessly inventive in their storytelling, perhaps best exemplified in the fact that Anna Glyn plays both
the "mothers" in their climactic courtroom battle. The bareness of the production means that some incredibly striking visuals really stand out, for which Oliver Welsh's lighting is a major contributing factor - setpieces that were just beautifully put together included Grusha crossing the mountains, and her being separated from her lover across a stream. And just to make sure the show ticks all my boxes, Lee Drage is cute
And he gets his tits out² so all's well.
If I had to criticise I'd say the choice of modern-day news images projected into the action don't necessarily match what's going on in the story at the time all that well, and feel like a rather clunky attempt to bring topical relevance to the play. And maybe a couple of cuts could have been made to stop the lengthy story from dragging but where this does occasionally happen there's always something else coming along next to get you interested again. Steadily getting better as the show goes on, popping with clever ideas that never feel like gimmicks, this is pure theatre and one of those shows that gets me buzzing with what the medium can do.The Caucasian Chalk Circle
by Bertolt Brecht in a version by Frank McGuinness is booking until the 12th of February at Greenwich Theatre and continuing on tour until April (tour dates
¹inasmuch as it could
be free of someone whose influence is stamped all over modern theatre; no plays what he actually done wrote, anyway
²revealing he's actually not that toned but I still totally would. Anyway it must be tricky to get to the gym when you're in a different town every couple of days, stop picking on him. You monster!