Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The Caucasian Chalk Circle - Richmond Theatre

The Caucasian Chalk Circle
by Betrolt Brecht
In a new translation by Alistair Beaton
Director: Nancy Meckler
Reviewer: James Higgins

This new version of Brecht's famous play is a joint production between A Shared Experience, Nottingham Playhouse and West Yorkshire Playhouse. The original version was written in 1944 whilst Brecht was in exile from Germany in America. It is based on a reworking of the old 14th century Chinese play The Circle of Chalk.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is not an enquiry into the dispute over ownership presented in the prologue but a celebration of the assignment of the land to "those that are good for it"In the prologue the people from two farm collectives debate their respective titles to ownership of a piece of land.

A singer arrives who agrees to tell the tale based on an old legend but this time set among the ruins of a war ravaged Caucasian village. The workings of this complex play begin as the singer starts to set the scene, aided and abetted by a cast of 11 playing over 50 different roles all whilst a full choir provide ample backing vocals.

As war rages, a maid (Grusha) to the governor's wife rescues baby Michael, the abandoned heir left behind in the wake of the destruction. She plots a lonely path through desolate countryside in a bid to find safety for herself and her adopted child in the mountains.

The set (designed by Colin Richmond) was large and quite overpowering. The choir sat among the wooden set looking down onto the stage as if a mirror image of the real audience giving the actors a very limited area in which to perform. A large choir wasn't really needed and served only to sometimes distract from the main action.

What main action there was though, the singer (James Clyde) was in fantastic voice throughout the first half as the hypnotic sound track drifted off the expertly played accordion that accompanied his tale. I wish they had dispensed with the hand microphone both for the singer and confusingly for some of the other roles later as they were unnecessary props, especially considering that half the songs were performed without and performed well. James Clyde and Matti Houghton (Gruscha) especially, sang with strength and feeling.

The first half of the play flowed quite slowly and was fairly long, in the second half the action really picked up and the audience was kept on its toes. Despite the plays sombre context some beautiful comedic touches were displayed throughout that really helped to lighten the mood.

The cast gave all round excellent performances in what must have been a real test of endurance for them. The pick of the bunch was Matti Houghton who gave an amazing and spirited performance as Grusha and was the only member of the entire cast to play a solitary role. Not content with already wowing with his vocal ability, James Clyde then assumed the role of Azduk (the judge) during the second half and was outstanding. Peter Bankolé was charming and convincing as the soldier that returns to seek his sweetheart Grusha, Christian Patterson (Fat Prince/Lavrenti/Innkeeper) moved in and out of complicated roles with ease and Nicholas Asbury was brilliant as the evil sergeant/Jussup/Governor.

This is a story that has everything for the audience; a tale of conflict, morality, peace, war and poverty. If you go and see it, and if you can keep up, you may even find it has a happy ending too !

Photos: Keith Patterson
Runs until 24th October.
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