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saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Jack Studio Theatre
5th March 2016


Grace Cheatle and the ensemble

Photography © Adam Trigg

Take civil war, politics, relationships, throw in some live music and that old chestnut of a framing device, a play within a play and you've got one of Brecht's most famous works, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. They certainly don't make 'em like they used to, you couldn't accuse Brecht of oversimplifying. The playwright's sustained and deliberate attempt to distance us from his protagonists further hinders any audience's comprehension of his writing. However thankfully director Ricky Dukes' vast experience with the classics means he's able to create an adaptation based on Frank McGuinness's translation from the original German which is not only respectful to Brecht's intentions and favoured techniques but which is relatively easy to understand and more importantly, enjoy. Dukes has taken the sort of epic storytelling everyone should see and turned it something they'll actually want to, no easy task.

The real substance to The Caucasian Chalk Circle lies in the play within the play, an old parable brought to life by a singer (Jon Tozzi) in an attempt to settle an argument about a piece of land between a bunch of fruit growers and goat farmers. In a nutshell, the people who own it have no real use for it and the people who don't can do great things with it. Great things that could benefit both sides. What's more important, asserting what's factually right or looking at the bigger picture and assessing what's morally right?

In the singer's mise en abyme, our protagonist is young maid Grusha (Ashleigh Cordery), whose humble dreams of marrying her soldier (Tozzi) are dashed when she's left holding the baby. Not her baby either, I might add. When their city is overthrown by a coup led by the Fat Prince (Tom Woodward), Governor George Abashwili (Rob Peacock) and his wife, Natella (Grace Cheatle) are too busy trying to save themselves to worry about their son, helpless baby Michael. His nanny (Paula Brett) is similarly concerned with self-preservation, not feeling a strong enough maternal instinct to risk her life to protect his. Although it's circumstance that pushes Grusha towards Michael, she actively chooses to not shy away from that burden.

Ashleigh Cordery as Grusha

Photography © Adam Trigg

Cordery's performance gives us something to hold onto amidst all the chaos. She's very earnest, expressive and likeable - whilst we never ache for her (probably a good thing, Brecht would roll in his grave if we cared too much), she's a moral compass, navigating us through the plot. Her actions are always driven out of a natural desire to do the right thing, making her our benchmark for basic humanity and determining what's fair and what isn't. When Grusha is married off to Jessup (Simão Ramos), we find him crude and brutish, but not without a point. When Azdak (Peacock) is appointed the city's judge, his style of justice is flamboyant and bizarre but again, not without a point. We're constantly reflecting on what's right and wrong, mulling it over rather than arriving at any snap decisions. When we get to the play's ultimate dilemma of who should legally parent Michael, we feel ready to tackle it.

It wouldn't be a Lazarus interpretation of a classic without some stunning framing and enthralling ensemble work. The reason why it's so difficult to dole out individual praise is because it's these group scenes which stand out. The play focuses on the hardships suffered by Grusha in raising Michael, and during her desperate journeys to flee from danger, Stuart Glover's vibrant lighting floods the stage with bold, threatening colours as Dukes shows off his established talent for directing large numbers of people in impossibly small spaces. It's not that the Jack Studio Theatre is particularly small, it's just you wouldn't ordinarily get 10 actors to share the stage at the same time when set up in the round. The ensemble here though merge together into one hive mind, bending and swaying perfectly in sync to Neil McKeown's thudding modern trance music, every movement feeding this Lazarus beast and making them stronger and more powerful, adding to an increasingly uncomfortable tension. Grusha's fear is almost visceral as the rest of the company encircle her.

In contest with the language and setting, Rachel Dingle's costume design is very modern, with hi-viz, clipboards and hard hats harking at petty officialdom. Sorcha Corcoran's set with its orange stackable chairs, transparent storage boxes and moveable whiteboard give the stage a sort of community hall feel. This helps link the folk story back to the community dispute in the prologue - we're always mindful that what we're watching is designed to resolve an earlier dilemma.

At over 100 minutes straight through, the pacing has to be (and is) always very tight, however the ending does feel a touch sudden. Refreshingly accessible and frequently brilliant, this mesmerising take on The Caucasian Chalk Circle is yet another strong offering from Lazarus Theatre Company. Frankly, if it was anything less, given the company's well-earned reputation, we'd be disappointed.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle opened on 23rd February and runs until 12th March 2016 at the Jack Studio Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Crofton Park (National Rail)

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