The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Bertolt Brecht’s brutal satire, morality play and modernist fairy-tale is currently undergoing treatment by ‘Screw the Looking Glass’, an imaginative and vital student theatre company. The play follows a poor girl, Grusha, who rescues a child from the chaos of war, and Azdak, a strange, messianic character, disillusioned with society and misty-eyed for the revolution.
Although ostensibly set in Georgia, there are references to places and events throughout which through their subtle incongruousness with what we know of history show that this play is in fact intended to be without setting, in either space or time. What’s different about this production is that it takes on this folk-tale style and plays on it; the play is set within a larger play, in which a folk singer narrates it. Most productions cut this aspect, but Screw the Looking Glass are embracing it. The whole piece is underpinned by eastern folk music, and no cast member goes off stage for the duration, instead returning to the ‘audience’ on stage to watch the proceedings.
Brecht plays noticeably on the iconic: Grusha is the beautiful, unlikely heroine who saves the abandoned child, and then plays the role of the virgin mother pursued by troops who have an interest in her infant charge. Meanwhile Azdak is taunted by soldiers, who dress him in robes and a judge’s hat to mock him. Biblical comparisons abound. The play is an “emotional roller-coaster” says director Jessica Lazar, but I see it as being more like a swinging ship; there’s a grace in the way it swings from comedy to gripping drama, almost scene by scene. This swinging certainly seems to have infected the cast. Connie Greenfield’s Grusha dances from wide-eyed and delicate to fierce and assertive with a natural ease, and the whole ensemble appear to sense the ebb and flow of each other’s performances.
Luke Rollason puts in an excellent turn as Azdak. He strikes a peculiar image, a shabby village clerk but possessing of an unpredictable demeanour which somewhat intimidates. The ebb and flow which characterises much of the piece returns again. “I wish you wouldn’t chew like that,” he says, silence falling on an otherwise energetic segment. “It makes me think such awful thoughts.” Contrast between vitality and gripping lull falls within the contrast which defines much of the character himself. “So much of what he says is sarcastic… this is a guy who passionately believes in things, but has to pretend he doesn’t,” says Rollason of Azdak, ‘It’s like playing a player.”
The play is very well set out by the company; shadow puppetry and an inventive use of old suitcases and piles of books for sets are effective in framing the piece. Possible criticisms are not forthcoming. There is a scope for greater individuation in a scene in which a marriage proposal is given by Leo Suter’s Simon Shashava, a soldier leaving his bwloved Grusha to go to war. The form is somewhat recurring in literature, but Suter and Greenfield are undoubtably the ones for the job of bringing Brecht’s elegant writing to life. “I come out of rehearsals like ‘I need a lie down’” remarks Greenfield in passing. The effort pays off. I’ve got my ticket and would recommend anyone does the same.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle runs at the Oxford Playhouse from Wednesday 5th to Saturday 8th of March; tickets start at £11.