The Caucasian Chalk Circle @ The New Theatre

Surely most people have heard of Brecht. Those that have should have also heard of “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”; a simple plot concerning the parenthood of a child. Is it the biological mother? Perhaps it is the governess, who can cater for all the material needs of the child? Or maybe even the servant-girl who cannot always provide shelter, but can give him plenty of love? Azdak, a somewhat unorthodox judge, plans a simple test by putting the child in the circle and declaring that whomever pulls him out is the true mother. Thus, Brecht’s morals are revealed: whoever cares most for something is its true owner.

This performance is certainly one which challenges all boundaries, with intriguing direction from Daniel Downes. The actors chatted to the audience as they came in and invited us to peruse the stage before the performance. I was trying to remember whether this was a Brechtian thing to do; certainly he wanted the audience to remember that they were watching a play so as not to connect with it too much. The entire cast should be congratulated, all taking on several parts masterfully, flipping between personalities and stereotypes. We could never forget that they weren’t people but, instead, just actors, with Grusha ‘forgetting’ her lines and reading from the script at one point, and the costumes kept at the back of the stage with actors changing whilst on stage. Despite the Narrator addressing the audience, as do all the characters, we are still distanced from then and can maintain an objective view.

The child being fought over was a puppet, and was one of the most ingenious props I’ve ever seen. While we would expect it to pull at the puppet strings rather than the heartstrings, somehow this play manages to allow us to connect emotionally with it, despite it being a construction. We are left questioning whether blood really is thicker than water, and what it means to really care for someone.

The performance as a construction was mirrored in the set: graffiti was used, and so was scaffolding at the back, separating the costume rail. This isn’t realistic theatre. Costume was likewise symbolic, with a simple luxurious shawl, standing for a palace’s wealth. I did, however think that the peasants being dressed in black, made them lack personality but perhaps this is so we are detached from them further.

Modern pop and rock and roll music was used at scene changes; although ‘Baby Love‘ and ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ seems an incongruous opening to a serious trial, it did lighten the mood. Humour was always at hand to destroy serious moments, again blocking us from becoming emotionally attached in intense scenes.

Lighting did however offer a chance for the audience to connect emotionally. A white spotlight was used to great effect in charged moments, placing emphasis on death, and strobe lighting heightened a sense of danger, drawing attention to our anxieties as the audience.

So, I am left pondering, does this play follow or abandon typical Brechtian style? One thing I don’t need to question however was my enjoyment of it. My recommendation: go and see it, it will definitely give you a few things to think about.

Amy Pearson
Images by Cesar Teixeira

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2 Comments on this post.
  • Chris Beale
    6 November 2010 at 11:12
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    Amy, this review is great: not over or under-selling it.
    Just a couple of things:

    1. It is written in the stage directions that the audience be shown around the stage, if I remember correctly (it is part of the Brechtian style)

    2. The lyrics to the pop songs played had relevance to the plot at that time and although not in the stage directions I thought they worked well, filling the time when all was black. This was effective in reminding the audience they were sitting in a theatre watching a play.

    All-in-all I thought the play was marvellous – I went yesterday (Friday).
    The direction was some of the best I’ve seen in the New Theatre and the acting was superb too – I wish I still had my programme, I think I lost it stupidly – but the final scene with Conrad was exceptional as was the bridge scene which involved everyone I think.
    At that point it wasn’t only the acting which made it tense; the sound effects and strobe lighting from nowhere were a real shock and the high-pitched whistle gradually crescendoed which really worked in my opinion. The set was great too, using the space well and the dressing room at the back of the stage was really great (not sure if this is in the stage directions but either way, bravo!)

    Just so you know, I wasn’t involved in the play but I was really impressed with entirety of this production: and the multi-rolling was done very well too (I had to mention that).

    Thanks for a review that is “just right” in the words of Goldilocks; I know how difficult it is to write reviews and in my opinion you did a great job.



  • Helen Oistroi
    8 November 2010 at 01:35
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    Well this is boring. Where are the verbal battles of Orphan times. Impact readers I am appalled.

    Good day to you all.

    And on a provocative note. The review is shit. x

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