‘Standing between doorway and gateway, she heard
Or thought she heard …’
Listen up, “I’ve looked into the pockets of the rich and that is [considered] bad language.” Here is a contemporary, full-on production of Bertolt Brecht’s great and humane play; its profane political resonances not so much hanging in the air as gusting out of the wind machine. As it goes, these days and then, HSBC (Swiss arm) could be up there on the gallows with the town judge, the Chief Tax Collector and the rest. At a grim stretch, you’ve seen what’s happening in the eastern Ukraine, well, here we go again.
We’re talking piastres of indeterminate (Ottoman?) origin rather than of pound, franc or euro but who cares provided you’ve got a shedload? And that’s the economics of the piece: “Those who had no share in the fortunes of the mighty / Often have a share in their misfortunes.” Out of confusion, collapse, coup and revolution come the have-nots-have-all stories of brave Grusha and of His Worship the excellent, the most scurrilous Azdak. Theirs, in amongst the rifles, rape and the noose, is the unlikely, virtuous, lyrically unco traffic of our stage.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a play with songs and director Mark Thomson realises how entertaining it should and can be, in or out of the shadow of Soviet tractors. Sarah Swire, as the Singer-Narrator, is not Brecht’s ‘sturdy man of simple manners’ but a punchy and versatile performer whose style and presence guides and informs rather than commands. Cast members double as musicians and Composer/Musical Director Claire McKenzie creates a strong and urgent soundscape: the city falls to a fearsome clockwork beat; Grusha is held in a ghastly tango by her brute of a husband. There is dancing, quite rightly, at the close.
The Singer sings of once upon a time, for the legend of the circle of chalk is based upon an old Chinese play. At its centre Brecht places Grusha, the kitchen maid, who saves the Governor’s child and runs for the mountains. These are not kind times. Papa’s head ends up on a lance and soldiers are hunting them down. Grusha’s flight is perilous, not least when she’s crossing a 2000 foot drop on a half rotten bridge. This is terrifically staged, as befits the moment when ‘Grushna Vachnadze decided to be the child’s mother’. Thomson realizes that this play works when an audience is exposed to why people behave the way they do. Azdak’s decision not to hand over the fugitive Grand Duke makes sense when you are gripped by his arch reasoning. Trial by chalk circle is palpably, deliberately, grotesque but it’s a dramatic triumph.
Christopher Fairbank is a stomping success as Azdak. More the truculent Ariel than any burdened mage, he is the rogue Time Lord with an impish spirit who obliges and provokes in the blink of an eye. Amy Manson gives an unwavering performance as the steadfast Grusha and harvests all the sympathy that the audience as collective can supply. Nasty, uncomfortable menace comes from the Sergeant, frighteningly well played by Deborah Arnott whilst Shirley Darroch as fat Prince Kazbeki is a cigar chomping nightmare, only marginally offset by her blaring trombone.
Alistair Beaton’s translation matches the lucidity of his programme notes on translating Brecht but is not helped when the accents travel far and wide: from the Thames estuary to the Welsh valleys, to Birmingham, to the North East, and to Scots, high and low. Strained rather than epic, I thought. And light features like smooth, RP-ridden lawyers, Barbour-clad farmers, mobiles, and a Lidl bag signify too much, too unnecessarily. You can speak uber German, I’m told, but all the same posh English for the ‘upper’ class is becoming too easy a target to mean much.
Still, “All pleasures have to be rationed” says the Girl Tractor Driver. Actually, not so in this eager and compelling production.
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 21 February)
Visit The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Lyceum here.