Brechtian ‘Epic Theatre’: it was a challenge from the start. In The Caucasian Chalk Circle Brecht created a play within a play in the complex world of post-revolutionary Grusinia. Auden’s scripted translation, complete with pithy ironies, jokes and musical interludes served as the framework for this production.
The two stories are presided over by the ever-present narrator, played by Jack Sain , whose entire demeanour (costume, make up, mannerisms and use of the stage), started off brilliantly in his role of puppet master. In distracting your attention with the brief burning of paper, and creeping behind the actors like some evil magician, manipulating their movements and whispering in their ears the stage was set for a powerful and gripping performance. Unfortunately, his poor tonal range and often weak projection that left his overall portrayal fairly undynamic; a part that needed a commanding stage presence was in the end was reduced to a fairly smug ring-master.
The set, scaffolding comprising two levels of three compartments, sat awkwardly at the back of the stage throughout, its potential utilized fully only in the very first scene where shadows appear in each compartment. For the rest of the performance it became a white elephant. It appeared as though a great task at great expense had been undertaken and the outcome left me wondering for what end. The ‘epic’ bridge scene exemplifies the general disappointment, where the characters are building up to the imminent struggle of Grusha and Michael crossing of a shaky bridge over a deep ravine. Here the installation and sound worked well, but when it came to the crux she just skipped across the bridge behind the curtain, arriving on the other side: ‘Ta-da!’. There was no tension: a large compelling build up produced a disappointing outcome.
Despite this, there were some re-juvinating scenes, gripping and well done: the wedding party in all its hilarity and the puppet children playing by the river were cause for light relief in a play that was otherwise struggling to keep up with itself. Furthermore, some of the chorus put in brilliant performances, notably Claire Bowman, whose performance of varying characters all felt new and fresh, and Dominic Applewhite, who brought some much needed light-hearted moments to the first half. Luke Rollason held the second half together in his portrayal of the judge Azdak, providing some moments of hilarity in his presentation of popular misogynistic humour, but somehow his camp stage presence didn’t quite manage to unmask the inner lunacy of the wise fool as he makes a merry mockery of the legal system in his unsubtle bribery and passing of absurd rulings. But that in part may have been due to the fact that at this point I was unsure as to whether the whole performance had broken down into pantomime.
I struggled to find what was holding the whole thing together and unfortunately so did a number of other people in the audience who didn’t quite make it back to their seats after the interval. Unfortunately the sheer scale of the set was the only thing that managed to fill the stage, leaving me with distinct disappointment in a play that could have been great in the more intimate setting of the Keble O’Reilly, but had unfortunately became dwarfed in the Playhouse.