Review: The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Embassy Theatre

The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht is a play chronicling the fall and restoration of society. A web of interwoven narratives examines the effects on the clearly defined and enforced classes. Overarching the play is the story of Grusha (Laura Wohlwend), a servant girl who amidst a palace siege rescues the heir left behind. She nurtures and adopts the child as her own to initially protect against rebel soldiers, and later, against the transparently selfish mother, Natella Abashvili (Mai Weisz), who needs the child to regain the estates lost during the revolt.

It is a play of constant shifting power, in which the concept of status is rendered meaningless in its changeability. A deeply cynical examination of morality, the play feels very apt at a time of growing civil unrest. Whilst the stakes may be different, the problems are strikingly familiar.

This production, directed by George Evans and Jesse Fox, acknowledges this through the political speeches of Donald Trump and Theresa May (amongst others) broadcast at the beginning and the conclusion. Following this, I expected an adaptation, recontextualised for the present. This did not come to pass, as the play remains in its setting of Georgia and the unestablished time of the distant past.

Instead, a seed is planted and a specific lens provided to view the production through. Rather than force parallels, they appear naturally as a result.

Though hugely enjoyable and engaging, this production lacks the usual edge of Brecht. The political statement was apparent, if not half-baked. At the end, the production rejoices in having made its point, the details of which remain uncertain.

Having made the choice to keep the original setting, clashing cultural references are littered throughout. Certain elements have been overlooked, if not unconsidered. Frustratingly, the didactic nature of the play is not fulfilled as a result.

Central’s Embassy Theatre has been limited, placing the audience on stage in traverse. All the typical Brechtian tropes can be found here, and the piece largely succeeds in Verfremdungseffekt, easing up to allow for touching moments of tenderness and humanity.

Rhys Anderson and Grace Melhuish hold the audience as narrators comfortably, with a natural playfulness. Overall, the ensemble is coherent – on the same wavelength throughout. Despite occasional moments of relaxed characterisation across the stage, through multi-roling the cast have managed to carve out the distinct caricatures of Brecht’s epic play impressively.

To begin with, the energy in the space was subdued, however the collective picked this up at the 20-minute mark. In their use of committed physicality and indicatory props, the audience’s imagination is massaged to craft ever changing environments. The symbolism used throughout is clear, and their inventive approach maximises simplicity.

Steve Salt’s Azdak commands the second act; the strongest voice through which the play communicates its ideals, or the lack thereof. Salt’s performance is captivating, in its flamboyance and nuance.

Ultimately, Central’s staging of the 3-hour long production is ambitious, and largely succeeds in its aims. Navigating the various plot lines fluidly in the space, in a cycle of separation and fusion, the work avoids getting tangled in the dense plot.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is playing Embassy Theatre until 23 June

Photo: The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama website

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