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Bertolt Brecht wrote The Caucasian Chalk Circle after World War II when he was living in the United States. At the time there were millions of displaced Europeans living in refugee camps and the play is about them. Brecht places his play in Georgia.
The production at the Rose Theatre in Kingston upon Thames near London, England uses an adaptation by Steve Waters that places the play in a contemporary United Nations’ refugee camp. Some refugees have mobile phones, but the camp is predictably an awful place for destitute people.
The promise of the play seems simple. A UN representative visits the camp where two groups are arguing about the use of the land. That is the prologue before we are launched into the play-within-a-play that will keep us trying to figure out what is happening for about three hours, including an intermission.
The Singer (Zoe West) enters strumming a guitar and singing. It is Brecht telling us that theatre is the telling of stories and not realistic representation of events. He called it epic theatre.
The refugees are assigned parts in the story about a revolution that the Singer will relate to us. The Governor of wherever the revolution is taking place is beheaded and his wife (Joanna Kirkland) leaves in a hurry with her clothes but not her baby son Michael. Grusha (Hope Fletcher) rescues the child and takes care of him. Michael does appear but for most of the performance he is represented by a small stuffed toy.
At the beginning of the second act one of the actors looks at the audience and confirms what we already know: the plot is very confusing. For a start there are more than 50 characters that are played by nine performers. What’s more, Director Christopher Hayden has decided to use various accents to indicate different origins or status in society by whoever these people are. It looks like a clever idea, but all the accents are presumably English and comprehension if often minimal. Perhaps they are intended to represent other nationalities but if you don’t understand what they are saying, it makes no difference. Hayden was probably not thinking of Canadian visitors.
The play winds itself towards the crucial end where we meet the great Azdak (Jonathan Slinger). He is educated, an officer of the law and completely corrupt. He speaks to the audience and is quite funny. He becomes the judge in the case of Michael’s fate. His biological mother returns and she claims her son. Grusha has the moral claim as the woman who saved Michael’s life and raised him at great risk to her own life.
The trial is a travesty, of course, but Azdak mandates that he will make his decision based on the Caucasian Chalk Circle. It is as described. A circle is drawn on the floor and the child is placed in the middle. The claimants pull the child by his arms and whoever gets him out of the circle wins. The biological mother does pull Michael out but, in the end, Grusha the “real mother” gets to keep him.
Set and Costume Designer Oli Townsend provides a dramatic set with rickety beds and several levels of shelves that looks like a huge storage facility. Michael Henry composed the music, but it made little impression on me amid the confusing plot.
The Rose Theatre deserves a great deal of credit for this ambitious production, and I hate being churlish about it. The acting was superb by any measure and the production values were there. But there were several issues, perhaps partly my fault, that made comprehension and appreciation difficult.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht in an adaptation by Steve Waters was performed until October 22, 2022, at the Rose Theatre, Kingston upon Thames, England.

October 28, 2022

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