The Caucasian Chalk Circle @ Unicorn Theatre, London

directed by
Nancy Meckler
Celebrated for their highly physical stagings of classic novels like War and Peace and A Passage to India, Shared Experience here give a free-wheeling account of Brechts The Caucasian Chalk Circle in a new translation by Alistair Beaton which emphasizes its satirical humour.

In this episodic story set in a country torn apart by civil war, we follow servant girl Grusha who takes care of the baby abandoned by his mother, the Governors aristocratic wife, who is more preoccupied with saving her possessions as they flee the enemy army invading the city.
After various hostile encounters in the countryside, Grusha escapes with her charge from soldiers hunting them down to the home of her inhospitable sister-in-law and brother, who arrange for her to wed an apparently dying old man to inherit his farm. But as the war ends not only does her young soldier lover return to find her married but so does the Governors wife, as the little boy is seized by the authorities for a trial to determine who is the real mother.

Beaton, best known for his political satires on New Labour in his stage play Feelgood and TV dramas The Trial of Tony Blairand A Very Social Secretary, produces a witty version of the text, but it sometimes feels a bit lightweight to convey Brechts serious points about the oppression of war and class exploitation. However, the earthy humanity of the storys origins as a medieval Chinese folk parable comes across strongly.

Although Beaton has updated the play from Second World War Georgia, with its Soviet/Nazi context, and has inserted some contemporary allusions, he has resisted the temptation to make any parallels to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq too simplistically explicit. He has also retained Brechts sometimes omitted prologue featuring a bureaucrat announcing government reforms to villagers, who then put on a play within the play to explain the hardships of the common people who always suffer the most whatever the regime.

Nancy Mecklers fluid, dynamic direction captures the sense of chaos in a war-torn society with refugees and soldiers always on the move. The suspenseful escape across a rope bridge and the farcical wedding/funeral are well done, though the climactic moment in the courtroom where the two competing mothers are supposed to pull the boy out of the chalk circle could have been a bit more dramatic. However, the use of a puppet to represent the boy works very well, highlighting his dependency.

Colin Richmonds flexible split-level design is effective in this fast-moving show, with a tidal line of debris around the edge of the stage symbolizing the ebb and flow of human fortune. Ilona Sekaczs East European folk-style songs and music performed live, including a chorus who sit on wooden benches at the back and react to what happens in the drama, gives a stirring sense of a rural community.

The cast play their multiple roles with gusto, donning a bewildering array of character-changing costumes. At the heart of the story Matti Houghtons performance as the courageous and compassionate Grusha gives the play an emotional depth, as she uses her peasant wits to ensure survival for her and the child she has come to love as her own. James Clyde also impresses greatly, first as the singer/narrator who comments on the action, and later as the wonderfully eccentric Azdak, a lustful, drunken radical humorist who becomes the peoples judge and dispenses justice with Solomon-like wisdom.

For those who usually find Brechts uncompromising Marxist didacticism hard to swallow this thoroughly entertaining production will act as a welcome antidote. Though the political edge is somewhat softened, rarely is his theatre of alienation this engaging.

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