As I took my seat in the circular auditorium, a troupe of actors walked on stage. They informed us that we were about to watch a play. Not just any play, but a play by Bertolt Brecht. Brecht the theatrical revolutionary, Brecht the communist, the post-war playwright, the man behind some of the most experimental theatre of the last century. They argued, politely, over what they thought the show was about, before proceeding to stop “playing” actors, and snap into character. The show began – and what a marvellous show it was.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle takes place in unstable Georgia, where the aristocracy hold the cards. When the people of the city revolt and the Governor is brutally murdered, his wife accidentally leaves their only child behind in the chaos. The maid, Grusha, knows that he will be killed when he is found: a child of noble blood. In a moment of impulsiveness and compassion, she takes the child, raising it as her own. Soon enough, after the war has passed, the mother wants him back…But does she deserve him? Who is the real mother of the child?
One thing immediately obvious from this production (as a reviewer entirely unfamiliar with Brecht and the rest of his work) was the emphasis placed on the quality of the acting. Whilst both the setting and politics of the play were big and expansive, the performances on stage were surprisingly intimate, this contrast allowing a greater emotional effect to take hold. As the action rolled over the mountains, rivers and countryside of Georgia, and Brecht pointed a finger at the destructiveness of war and the importance of communal ownership, the outstandingly believable performance of Kiran Sonia Sawar gave the play a soul. Her naturalistic portrayal of Grusha, a brave (but not perfect) woman, better than the corruption around her, provided the foundation of the play. Nabil Shaban also provided a phenomenal performance as Azdak, the judge asked to choose between a mother and a maid, a rich woman and a poor one. However, the cast was uniformly impressive, most performers taking on several roles throughout the play. Their versatility made each transition seamless, the lack of impressive props and gaudy costumes emphasising the skill with which they inhabited each role.
If most people were asked, they might say that the theatre means escapism. One is swallowed up by the plot, enveloped by it, until the boundary between reality and the imagination becomes blurred. In The Caucasian Chalk Circle, the staging was a constant reminder of the constructed nature of the play. Rather than concealed, the backstage area was entirely visible: lighting and sound equipment were on show for all to see, ropes dangled from the ceiling and the actors movements were obvious as they scurried back and forth. This was incredibly effective directing from Amy Leach. By making the audience aware of their audience function, Leach (and Brecht) made a comment on the nature of theatre itself, both alienating the watchers and drawing them in. This was unsettling, yet compelling: perhaps the most apt two words to describe the play as a whole.
Overall, The Unicorn Theatre’s version of The Caucasian Chalk Circle was an innovative, creative piece. If you’re looking for a political, romantic, original piece that is still relevant, and want a heads up, it’s hidden just behind London Bridge.