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The Caucasian Chalk Circle at The Rose Theatre Kingston

Grub first, morals later”, is Brecht’s best-known line. It’s pithy, profound and penetrating. I was expecting more of this at last night’s Rose Theatre production of his 1944 work The Caucasian Chalk Circle – alas my hopes were unfounded. Why? Let me count the ways. First I got to my seat at 7.20 in good time for the 7.30 start, however, the start was delayed until 7.40 and the interval was at 9.20. That’s almost two hours without a break. I’m told the average time a person can sit without needing the toilet is 1 hour and 30 minutes. Second, dry ice enveloped the entire space sucking all the air out leaving me with a dry throat and in desperate need of some water. Message to directors: dry ice adds nothing and causes discomfort to your audience, so please stop using it. Thirdly, the microphone on the acoustic guitar of Zoe West (singer and narrator ) meant that the music was way too loud and made it very difficult to hear the singers singing.

Jonathan Slinger in The Caucasian Chalk Circle at Rose Theatre. Photo by Iona Firouzabadi.
Jonathan Slinger in The Caucasian Chalk Circle at Rose Theatre. Photo by Iona Firouzabadi.

The plot is very difficult to follow. Costume changes ranging from Ancient Mesopotamia to modern Iraq made it hard to know who was who and what was what. And the change of accents switching from Geordie to Bristolian and back often within the same scene was confusing, to say the least. But the main problem was the play itself. The Caucasian Chalk Circle sets out to be a comic satire about power and corruption but all too often this production lapsed into caricature and pantomime. What were conceived as archetypes of the human condition – the haughty monarch, the corrupt judge, the greedy peasant – turned into one-dimensional cardboard cutouts that I found implausible. All of these difficulties can be squarely laid at the door of Brecht’s notion of the Verfremdungseffekt which he took to be the whole point of theatre. By this, he meant that a play should not allow the audience to over-identify with any one character but rather the audience should experience a distance effect. This is all well and good for theatre folk who know their onions but I’m doubtful if the average punter is going to follow this. We are back to the perennial problem of radical theatre: preaching to the converted.

Having made those points there is much that is positive about this production. The main character of the play is the young woman Grusha Vashnadze (the impressive Carrie Hope Fletcher) who, in one of the play’s most haunting lines falls prey to the “terrible temptation of kindness” and rescues an abandoned baby. Her epic journey on the run during a time of war with a baby to care for provides the narrative arrow of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Carrie Hope Fletcher makes a fine Grusha fighting to keep the baby safe. She acts and sings with great energy and force but Brecht has given her an impossible hand. He doesn’t want her to represent old-fashioned maternal extinct. She has to stand for non-traditional advanced ideals. But how to make love for an abandoned baby seem non-maternal? Brecht doesn’t know and neither does director Christopher Haydon.

Zoe West is the singer and narrator of the play within the play. A cross between Billy Bragg and Bob Dylan the Singer’s role is to frame the action of the play and guide the audience through the labyrinthine post. Fair enough. And Zoe West is nothing but full-on. However, as I’ve mentioned the microphone attached to her guitar spoils both her playing and her singing. The acoustic guitar unaided by a microphone would be perfectly adequate for the Rose Theatre. Why not try it?

Too often the targets for the comedy and satire go down cul-de-sacs and rabbit holes and are non-sequiturs. An exception to this is the marriage scene where Grusha agrees to marry an elderly man on his deathbed to provide for her child. This is comic satire in which Shiv Rabheru is wonderful as the grotesque almost dead groom. This scene is one of the play’s most delightful highlights.

The meaning of the play’s title is finally revealed in the last and by far the best act in the play. Here we meet Azdak (the excellent Jonathan Slinger) the most Brechtian of the play’s characters. Cynical, clever and world-weary Azdak has seen it all many times over. In an engaging monologue, he railed against non-doms, oligarchs and lawyers. He revels in words. Repeats the word risible twice because it likes it so much. Asked to justify himself he quotes Browning’s “Let me count the ways”. I also referenced this in the first paragraph of this review. Brecht wants Azdak to represent the Law as the people’s law. And Azdak does indeed show that money buys justice. But when he comes to decide the case of the disputed child he has nothing to offer except a straight borrowing from the Jewish bible and the wisdom of Solomon 970-931. Azdak draws a circle of chalk and puts the child in the centre of the chalk circle and orders the two rival mothers to pull the child by the arm as in a tug of war. But this is not original or an advance on the Judgement of Solomon. It’s plagiarism pure and simple. For two and half hours we have been watching the play get to this moment of dramatic resolution only to find an unoriginal copy. So much for Brecht’s revolutionary theatrical innovations.

Hats off to Oli Townsend for a very imaginative set. The metal framed beds were ingeniously adapted to make prisons, bridges, gibbets, courtrooms and much else besides. The ladders on the walls around the stage gave depth and a variety of location, whilst the boxes with cut-out windows were marvellously lit to create the illusion of a mountain village. This was all very well done. To give the audience a better chance to follow the songs it might help to provide captions on a screen above or at the side of the stage?

3 Star Review

Review by John O’Brien

In the midst of a bloody revolution, a young woman risks everything to rescue the abandoned child of the Governor and his wife. Years later, when the Governor’s wife returns seeking her son, a raucous rogue judge turns justice on its head. Can the test of the chalk circle determine which of the two women is the boy’s real mother?

Brimming with original songs and full of mischievous humour, this is the first major London production of Bertolt Brecht’s epic masterpiece for 25 years. A gripping adventure developed in association with MGC, this new version by Steve Waters (Limehouse, Donmar Warehouse), with music by Michael Henry (Barber Shop Chronicles, National Theatre) is directed by Rose Artistic Director, Christopher Haydon.

A Rose Original Production
With Carrie Hope Fletcher and Jonathan Slinger
4 October 2022 – 22 October 2022

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  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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