The Caucasian Chalk Circle

There’s rumbustious joy aplenty in this new adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s infamous examination of legality and justice. Constantly entertaining and frequently enlightening, its only real downside is it being a two-hour-plus show which undoubtedly feels like a two-hour-plus show.

While not a “musical”, this is definitely a “play with music”, and the Lyceum’s artistic director Mark Thomson strikes gold with his choice of an appropriately demented score by Claire McKenzie.

At the heart of The Caucasian Chalk Circle is the tale of Grusha, a kitchen maid in some East European Governor’s palace who, during an armed rebellion, rescues the Governor’s abandoned infant son Michael. Looking after the child as she flees the fighting, she comes to consider the boy as her own. Several years later, however, when a counter-revolution reinstates the old regime, she suddenly finds herself in court facing the Governor’s widow, arguing over who is Michael’s “real” mother.

This being Brecht, of course, there are no attempts to encourage us to suspend our disbelief about what we’re watching: the Lyceum’s deep stage is scattered with Karen Tennent’s misleadingly chaotic mess of props and furniture; the growing baby Michael is a puppet. More, Grusha’s story is presented as a piece of village theatre; Brecht opens proceedings with a prologue in which an official attempts to settle the future use of some agricultural land. (Annoyingly, there’s no on-stage conclusion to this “narrative envelope” at the close of the play.)

There’s much to love about this production, though; not least a uniformly excellent and (unusually, in these days of restricted budgets) large cast of 13 actors, some of whom mingle with the audience before the start of proceedings. Significantly, several roles are subject to cross-gender casting: Deborah Arnott excels as a thuggishsergeant; Shirley Darroch gives us a cigar-smoking Lex Luther-esque Prince Izbeki; and Jon Trenchard expertly balances between pantomime laughs and dramatic heart as the Governor’s wife.

While Amy Manson’s wonderfully emotive Grusha is our initial focus — her guileless innocence, after all, helps highlight the all-too-selfish behaviour of those around her —the fact remains that Brecht effectively ensures the show can be stolen in the latter half by the singular judge Azdak – and, arguably, it is here, with an absolute barn-storming performance by Christopher Fairbank.

While not a “musical”, this is definitely a “play with music”, and the Lyceum’s artistic director Mark Thomson strikes gold with his choice of an appropriately demented score by Claire McKenzie. Sarah Swire excels too as the indie-singer with attitude who acts as narrator from the stage, and ably switches between grunge, folk, blues, rock and tango whenever the narrative requires her to.

Alistair Beaton’s witty, intelligent – albeit at times slightly unfocused – translation of (arguably) Brecht’s least cynical play clearly gives its cast a solid foundation on which to work. The only shame is that, sometimes, you can get too much of a good thing.

Reviews by Paul Fisher Cockburn


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The Blurb

“Terrible is the seductive power of goodness”

Revolution – a city turned upside down. The mighty tumble, the weak break their fall and everyone must take care. As she picks a path through the chaos, a young servant girl must make a choice: save her own skin or sacrifice everything to rescue an abandoned child with a price on his head.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is one of the greatest plays of the last Century, crafted by a grand master of storytelling at the height of his powers and peopled with a wild array of vivid and amusing characters. Written in the wake of the Second World War. This timeless parable continues to ask urgent questions about justice, and how to do right when the world goes wrong.

The full epic sweep and scale of this powerful drama is brought to life by a large cast of actor musicians. Rich in music and song this production gives full voice to Brecht’s powerful tale of the terrible temptation to do good.

Alistair Beaton is a Scottish writer, whose plays include Feelgood, King of Hearts and Follow My Leader. For television, he wrote the award-winning A Very Social Secretary and the Channel 4 film The Trial of Tony Blair.

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