German modernist playwright Bertolt Brecht is not the easiest when it comes to reviewing his work. He was very much a one-off who had certain ideas about how he wanted audiences to react to his plays. So, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I went along to the Brockley Jack Studio to see The Lazarus Theatre Company’s interpretation of one of Brecht’s most celebrated works; The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
The story itself is set in the Soviet Union around the end of the Second World War. It shows a dispute between two communes, the Collective Fruit Farm Galinsk fruit growing commune and the Collective Goat Farmers, over who is to own and manage an area of farmland after the Nazis have retreated from a village and left it abandoned. In order to help come to a decision, the Collective Fruit Farm Galinsk fruit growing commune have arranged for a singer to come along and tell the negotiating parties an old fable about a land where there is revolution, deception and finally a decision to be made of great importance to all.
Now, the plot to The Caucasian Chalk Circle is either really simple or quite complicated depending on your point of view. When we first entered the auditorium to be confronted by a mass of things – a table, stacked chairs, a trolley with one of the cast giving out biscuits – always a winner for me – and plastic storage boxes, it was all a bit confusing but full credit to Designer Sorcha Corcoran for grabbing the audience’s attention from the moment they walked in. Once the play started, I have to admit I initially had trouble with it. There seemed to be a lot of people (there are 10 talented actors in this ensemble cast – Adam Boyle, Paula Brett, Grace Cheatle, Ashleigh Cordery, Pauline Nakirya, Rob Peacock, Simao Ramos, Jon Tozzi, Charles Warner and Tom Woodward) and props in a very small space and yet, despite Brecht’s whole play within a play and multiple fast scene changes, Adaptor and Director Ricky Dukes, manages to get the story told, with everyone moving like well-oiled cogs in a smoothly operating machine. Special shout-outs on the acting front to Ashleigh Cordery as Grusha, the peasant girl who rescues a baby, Jon Tozzi as Simon/Singer and Rob Peacock who pretty much steals the show as the Judge, Azdak. However, this is a very strong cast, playing multiple roles in different plays exceptionally well and doing so without losing the audience as to which characters are currently inhabiting the stage.
The play was originally written in 1944 and the updating of the text – following its translation – is very respectful to the original writing. This is true throughout and I especially liked the songs by Robert Locke which kept the atmosphere fairly light all the way through – it would have been really easy for this to be a very dark tale. It also could have been easy to lose the audience as the story meanders a bit with the numerous scene and even time changes but again, a tight script and direction keeps everyone fully clued in as to the journey – though I have to admit it was great at the end when all the threads seemed to come together to bring about a final decision in the Fruit Farm/Goat Farm debate.
All told then, this production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle works really well in delivering a rather convoluted tale in a pretty fast-paced and straightforward way. The adaptation, direction and acting all work superbly together to bring Brecht’s ideas to life and ultimately this is an enjoyable and lively piece of theatre that is well worth catching while you can.
Review by Terry Eastham
Lazarus Theatre Company presents
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
by Bertolt Brecht
translated by Frank McGuinness
Tuesday 23 February to Saturday 12 March 2016
A girl must make a choice… to take the child and run, or leave him behind in the fury of civil war.
Brecht’s thrilling and revolutionary play follows a young girl who makes the biggest decision of her life. Set against the back drop of war and mutiny, Grusha seeks refuge and asylum. Her crime: saving the son of thefleeing establishment. Her reward: The Chalk Circle.
This inventive ensemble production draws on Brecht’s pioneering techniques and thrilling text, set to an original score. Launching their 2016 season, The Caucasian Chalk Circle marks Lazarus Theatre’s return to TheJack Studio after their sell out productions of The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Merchant of Venice.
The Jack Studio Theatre
410 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2DH
The Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
Tuesday 23 February to Saturday 12 March 2016