Photo by Manuel Harlan Photo by Manuel Harlan

Review: The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Unicorn Theatre

Written for Everything Theatre

The people at the Unicorn Theatre are a brave bunch. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have given their stage to Amy Leach and her nearly three hour long production of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, aimed at children of eleven and over. As it does in the play though, bravery certainly pays off.

Civil war has broken out in Georgia (the European country, not the home of Gone with the Wind); the governor has been decapitated and his wife has fled, leaving behind their infant son Michael. Kitchen maid Grusha takes the child, knowing that the rebels will kill him if they find him, and hides out in the mountains for two years. Then, suddenly, the old authorities are reinstated and the governor’s wife returns, looking for her child.

Like most of Brecht’s plays, The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a complex piece that deals with power dynamics, conflict and the less savoury aspects of capitalism. It may sound like borderline foolhardiness to aim a production like that at teenagers, but remarkably, it works. The children sitting in the stalls with their parents were all quiet as mice, and the teenagers of the school group upstairs were positively invested in the story. (There’s a scene where Grusha’s brother tries to hide her away with an old lady. When the lady named her rather high price for the service, an indignant ‘wow’ came floating down from the circle.)

Frank McGuinness’ translation is vigorous and to the point, complemented by the bold portrayals of the characters that just remain on the right side of over the top. Especially Kiran Sonia Sawar’s Grusha and Nabil Shaban’s Judge Azdak are wonderful: Grusha gutsy and dignified, Azdak the sleaziest slime to ever slither, yet both very lovable.

Leach’s production makes industrious use of Brecht’s most beloved staging techniques as well. Composer/singer/narrator Dom Coyote sits high above the action, accompanying the events on stage with his voice and the occasionally terrifying sounds he wrenches out of his guitar and his laptop. The evocative but sinister atmosphere is completed by Hayley Grindle’s outstanding design, that features props hanging from nooses, a large cross made of fluorescent tube lights and an eerily beautiful mountain range of white sheets.

The play really needs this excellence in its staging though, because the text is long and occasionally, it’s tough going. Particularly the start of the second act, a very Brechtian bit of backstory, slows the proceedings down considerably. Mercifully McGuinness has foregone the prologue, although it’s replaced with a strange bit of explanation that’s neither here nor there really. These are minor complications in an otherwise brilliant production however. It’s a very worthwhile play to see with teenagers, but come prepared: a bit of background reading is probably required to fully grasp the political intricacies of the text. For adults too, The Caucasian Chalk Circle will at times be challenging, but in the best possible way. With four months to go to the elections, this is certainly food for thought.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle plays at the Unicorn Theatre until 21 March 2015