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The Caucasian Chalk Circle

The Bull Arts Centre, High Barnet, London

Natasha Hulugalle

There are those who believe that The Caucasian Chalk Circle has no place in modern theatre. This is an argument promoted by critics who understand the play as primarily Marxist in sentiment.

How, they reason, will a play that so blatantly attacks religion, injustice and social inequality, be challenging to the converted liberal elite that makes up a modern theatre audience? Undoubtedly the Marxist overtones of Caucasian Chalk Circle do pose certain difficulties. Brecht had a distinct concept of how an audience should react to his play. Above all it was to be experienced as a play of ideas; it satirised the judiciary, mocked religious life, and forced onlookers to pick sides. Written in the aftermath of the Second World War, it asked what kind of regime should now be chosen.

It is a tough cast of actors and a tough audience that can demote their emotional sensibilities to second place and confront the play as Brecht intended. But critics who claim that Brecht should no longer be staged are probably being a little pernickety. A Brechtian critique may be out of fashion ideologically but this is because much of it is accepted as part of the popular mainstream. The modern audience will not feel especially shocked by an attack on inequality, the ridicule of the powerful, or even the mockery of certain religious symbols, but that doesn't mean these issues are intellectually exhausted. Brecht didn't like his audience to feel comfortable, so it would be misguided to present or to interpret The Caucasian Chalk Circle as a confirmation of our humanist values.

For that reason it would also be a mistake to understand the play as a lesson in morality. It is too comic and knowing to strike that note of severity. Preaching would also make an audience overly comfortable, as it requires them to merely sit back quietly and take their orders. Perhaps the modern audience would benefit most from Brecht by accepting the play in its simplest form, ie. a satirical comedy. In this respect the Watford Palace theatre company was admirably successful.

Set in the Caucasus mountains of Georgia, the play takes its ideological cue from the prologue. The notoriety the play achieved as a piece of brazen communist propaganda was such that Brecht would not allow the particularly explicit prologue to be printed in the US while he was still living there as an exile.

After the Second World War, two groups of peasants gather in a valley to argue over which group should claim the valley as their own. Under the care of the State Reconstruction Committee it is unanimously decided that the land should go to the group who will put it to best use. In celebration of this triumph of diplomacy a singer is brought forward as entertainment; the intertwining stories of the chalk circle that are then told form the main part of the play.

It is recounted that 250 years previously a civil war gripped the region, forcing the governor's wife Natella (Vanessa Havell) to flee. She forgets her baby, who is saved by a serving maid Grusha (Ruth Conell). Grusha is known to be a difficult role, as Brecht wanted her to be judged solely by her actions in spite of the inevitable sympathy that she arouses. This production appeared to sideline these exacting specifications, but Ruth Connell was feisty as well as sympathetic, avoiding mawkishness.

After much suffering and sacrifice to ensure the safety of the child, Natella demands her back. Grusha is brought to a court presided over by wise fool judge, Azdak who was played with just the right amount of conscious absurdity and cynicism by Stephen Povey.

Here the significance of the chalk circle is revealed. Alluding to an ancient Chinese legend and the Biblical story of Solomon's judgement of the tru mother of a baby. Brecht however, ignores the original story and concludes the parable in the same style as his prologue. He chooses the selfless commitment of an individual who acts for the good of others over any idea of natural right.

It may then seem shallow, but it is possible to enjoy this play as entertainment. With just five members, the cast could have won over an audience with simply their unfailing vigor, each taking on countless roles. Although all were impressive, Bryan Pilkington gave a particularly imposing performance(s). His roles varied widely, from the weak ineffectual brother of Grusha to a ruthless soldier. Each was so persuasive that it was almost disappointing when he rushed to the back of a stage for yet another character change. The set was cleverly soviet-utilitarian, demanding all to be present on stage throughout the performance. Song is a standard feature of Brecht and in this production it was made all the more powerful by the absence of any formal musical accompaniment.

Overall this interpretation benefited by playing up the absurd tragic-comic elements of the play. Sceptical critics should relax and take a practical approach - this type of satire works well for our time.

Run over.

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