The now infamous play, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, is one of German modernist playwright Bertolt Brecht’s most celebrated works. Directed by Mark Thomson and translated by Alistair Beaton, Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum has with this production not only managed to preserve the wit and ingenuity so characteristic of Brecht’s works, but also given it renewed relevance in these times of conflict, revolution and war.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is presented as a ‘play-within-a-play’, where the ‘frame play’ is set in the Soviet Union straight after the end of the Second World War. Representatives from two separate communes are arguing over who is to take control over a piece of land that the Nazis confiscated. In order to shed light on the dispute, one group decides to present a parable, or play. In comes the Singer, who starts telling the tale of The Caucasian Chalk Circle: an old folk tale about an abandoned child, a kitchen maid and “The Terrible Seductive Power of Goodness”.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a story of revolution, war, greed, and how to do the right thing when everyone around you is saving their own skin. The Singer’s story begins when the wealthy Governor and his wife refuse to listen to the complaints of their people. This sparks a revolution, where the Governor is killed, the governess flees and their only child and heir, Michael, is left behind. He is saved by Grusha, the kitchen maid, and they escape in the cover of darkness. Sadistic soldiers, who are instructed to find and kill the baby, follow closely behind.
This is not an easy story to get right for a theatre company. With swift scene changes, an impressive selection of instruments, a high number of characters, and an equally high number of different plot settings, it can so easily become messy and confusing. This might be why the show gets off to a bit of a slow start; the scene changes do not flow as smoothly as they would normally do and the set, at times, tends to look cluttered. However, this improves massively as the play develops, and by the end of the first act these minor criticisms are forgotten and replaced by sheer delight regarding the wonderful acting performances taking place on stage.
Amy Manson is highly convincing in the role of Grusha, and displays a tenderness that becomes especially heart breaking when confronted with the many obstacles laid before her. Special mention should also be made of Sarah Swire as the Singer. She is brilliant, both vocally and as a storyteller, and gives the play a edge that helps drive the story along. The rest of the cast, who all play multiple roles, excel in other departments, which really proves to show that this is an all-round impressive production.
However, one actor stands out above the rest, namely Christopher Fairbank as Azdak. He is superb in his portrayal of the chancer-turned-judge, and brilliantly manages to put across the story’s emphasis on justice in a play that can at times be both confusing and overwhelming.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a theatrical tour-de-force that should not be missed. Despite some minor criticisms, the acting and musical performances make this a play well worth your time, and one that is highly relevant today.