Originally published in the Oxonian review, March 6th 2014
In the programme notes of Screw the Looking Glass’s production of Bertolt Brecht’sCaucasian Chalk Circle, there is a quotation from the playwright on one of the significances of the circle:
‘Of course the wheel just goes on turning / What’s once on top cannot remain.’
This extract, from the Ballad of the Waterwheel, also directs our understanding of the narrative arc of Caucasian Chalk Circle, which is fixed in the rise and fall of people in society and the fluidity of the roles they play. After a brief prologue we are invited to watch an ancient parable, presented as drama by the singer Arkadi (Jack Sain), alongside the residents of two kolkhoz villages. The source material for this parable, as with much of Brecht’s theatre and style, is adapted from Chinese theatrical traditions, more specifically a 14th Century play called Circle of Chalk. Whilst, through the character of Arkadi, the playwright acknowledges that his Chalk Circle is different, its relation to its predecessor remains obvious.
The first act tells the story of Michael, a child of aristocracy, who is abandoned by his callous mother Natella (Gráinne O’Mahoney) during a coup and rescued by a servant girl, Grusha (Constance Greenfield), on the same day that she promised herself to the Soldier (Leo Suter). Michael and Grusha flee the revolution-gripped city for the countryside and are forced to overcome a series of obstacles including disease and an unwanted marriage only to be caught and brought back to the city, where Grusha is made to stand trial; Natella has returned to the city demanding her child back in order to reclaim her late husband’s estates, a reminder of the whimsical nature of the nobility and how vulnerable those without power can be. The second act follows the career path of Azdak (Luke Rollason), a clerk who has become an unpredictable judge in the time between Grusha’s escape and return. The two narrative threads come together for the Solomon-style judgment from which the play takes its name, during which Michael will be returned to the person deemed by the judge as his rightful mother. This judgment ultimately echoes the prologue and is the point of the parable being told; that resources should go to those who are most able to use them.
The production did justice to Brecht’s script through James and Tania Stern’s fluent and intelligible translation; one often forgets that Caucasian Chalk Circle was not originally written in English , high praise for any translator. There was an abundance of thought provoking, poetic moments that transpose Brechtian modes of expression into manageably English yet innovative aphorisms: lines like ‘Terrible is the temptation to do good‘ and ‘Even in the bloodiest times there are good people’ stick in the mind.
The play was presented in classic Brechtian style, with the audience always aware that they are watching a spectacle rather than depictions of reality. The actors were permanently visible at the side of the stage and together with the sharp, high contrast lighting changes and outbursts of song interspersed throughout the piece, this transparency in staging ensured that the audience was always aware of what they were watching.
The set was relatively sparse for an Oxford Playhouse production, but this allowed the audience to focus on the actors and their craft. Of note, in the role of Azdak, Luke Rollason managed the difficult task of carrying the humour and controlling the pace of the second act with apparent ease and Dominic Applewhite’s versatility in the characters that he played was extremely impressive. Indeed, the vocal and physical range of the ensemble at large was thoroughly deployed, though Jack Sain’s physicality as the Singer was particularly striking as he stalked around the stage as the master puppeteer, controlling events and observing from afar.
The way in which shadow puppetry and acting, presumably a nod to the play’s Oriental roots, accompanied the scenes of revolution allowed the production to more effectively imply violence than would otherwise be possible on stage. Two puppets were used to represent Michael in his different phases of life, ingeniously made of quartz, with the gold vein running through it representing his suppressed nobility. The puppets, moving in a way one might expect a human baby to do, are a credit to their creator Suzi Battersby.
Caucasian Chalk Circle is a notoriously difficult play to produce. Incorporating many of the traditionally ignored aspects of the play, such as the prologue and the songs, Screw the Looking Glass’s production at the Oxford Playhouse pulled them off with enough aplomb to justify their inclusion. Screw the Looking Glass offers a presentation of Brecht’s play in a way that reveres his anti-realist traditions while still engaging with its 21st century audience. Brecht’s 20th century update of an ancient parable of human nature and the rise and fall that occurs in a manufactured society serves as a timely, anti-realist reminder in an era marked by the availability of realism in theatre.