Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Caucasian Chalk Circle – West Yorkshire Playhouse

The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Book: Bertolt Brecht
Adaptor: Alistair Beaton

Music: Ilona Sekacz
Director: Nancy Meckler
Musical Director: Derek Barnes
Reviewer: Nicola Harrison

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a play inspired by the Chinese play Chalk Circle. It was written at the end of world war II and tells the tale of king Solomon where a child is claimed by two mothers. A chalk circle is metaphorically drawn around a society whose priorities have become misdirected. Brecht juxtaposes the two classes around the innocence of a fable and in doing so challenges the audience to consider their values and whether things could be different. He wanted to change the world that he saw and set a president through his anti-illusionistic approach requiring a raw and stark staging and the use of real materials. In Alistair Beaton's translation of the play, nothing is lost as he captures the essence of the bold, emphatic language and lively sense of humour.

The play is set in a war-torn village in an under-developed country. Commissioners have been sent to claim the land from the farmers and in doing so, offer new opportunities to the community such as clean water, electricity, roads, new housing, schools. There is a conflict of interest as the villages weigh up their loses and potential advantages of a new and more comfortable life. From here the story unfolds through the story teller who creates a play within a play. The question of values and who has rightful ownership of anything becomes the key theme that threads the story together. The drama is also focused on attitudes rather than feelings in keeping with Brecht's idea of anti-illusionism. This enables the audience to be objective in their thinking. From the onset the play embraces a medley of comedy, romance and tragedy as two lovers face the challenges of life apart until the war is over. The audience is kept captivated by the tale as it propels along without giving much away. It is not until the final acts that the conflict is resolved, and we discover the moral behind the story.

In keeping with Brecht's preferred style, the set is exposed and uses raw materials and props where necessary. The lighting and sound effects were used sparingly and so were effective when required at key moments, particularly to emphasise contrast and pace in the story. Costumes were used appropriately to highlight the different personalities and character roles. The brilliant translation of Brecht's work together with Nancy Meckler's direction made this production credible. The audience is compelled to move along with the play, due to its good pace and consistencies in staging and design.

The performances of the cast, including actors, musicians and chorus worked well. Despite having individual roles to play they all merged as one, blending together well. (Unassuming and naturally delivered). The chorus sang with conviction and also sensitivity when required as a backing to the solo lines. All the cast delivered the lines of comedy emphatically and with great passion. Particularly strong performances were given by Christian Paterson, Clare Perkins and Josephine Butler in a variety of roles. The story teller, played by James Clyde could be critisised for having rather a lackadaisical approach to his role but this contrasted with his later character where he becomes the judge and wise fool. The music added a raw edge to the story with the simple use of an accordion expertly played by Katherine Toy throughout, drums and special effects. Some of the individual solos were weak but somehow this didn't spoil anything as the play is essentially about character.

Overall, this production never ceased to entertain and kept its audience captivated throughout. Its crude and foretelling wit, namely due to an excellent script and strong delivery from the actors makes it necessary viewing. It is essentially a fairytale but with essences of Chaucer's Canterbury tales or scenes from a Shakespearian comedy play.

Photos: Keith Pattison
Runs until 17th Oct
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