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Reflections of a working writer and reader



The Caucasian Chalk Circle

We were at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, to see Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, in a new production by Shared Experience. The city burns in the heat of civil war and a servant girl sacrifices everything to protect an abandoned child. But when peace is finally restored, the boy’s mother comes to claim him.

Derived from and inspired by the 14th-century Chinese play Circle of Chalk, Brecht changes the ending so that the child lives, not with his birth mother but with the mother who cares for him most. Echoes of the Judgement of Solomon here.

I was more than a little thrown by the perceived need for a new translation. The original translation into English was by by Brecht’s close friend and admirer, Eric Bentley, who also went on to direct the first professional production of the play. This new version has been translated by Alistair Beaton, and I suppose in a way it’s brought the Caucasian Chalk Circle up to date as far as language is concerned. But I thought it added little and detracted more than once from the historical perspective of the play.

Grusha, the servant-girl, played by Matti Houghton, is excellent; as is Azdak, the judge, played nonchalantly by James Clyde.

Nancy Meckler directs a tale of justice, corruption and morality, not entiely flawlessly. The first act seems too linear and is one-paced, and by the time of the interval I was looking for something to happen.

In the second act the linearity of the piece falls apart and out of the ruins of that something very special begins to happen. The audience is engaged in a way that seemed impossible during the first hour and, in spite of Brechts stated aim that a play should not cause the spectator to identify emotionally with the characters or action, but should instead provoke self-reflection and a critical view, I was definitely moved here, and touched deeply by the experiences of these characters. Not least when the child, Michael, previously only seen as a bunch of swaddling, miraculously morphs into a toddling and wholly engaging puppet.

During the course of the play one is reminded, inevitably, of other theatrical experiences and references. In the case of this performance I was haunted by the spectres of Chaplin and Beckett, an actor and director who was perhaps a contemporary, and a playright who would follow and extend the work of the early modernists.

After Leeds the play tours to:
Richmond Theatre, Richmond 20-24 Oct 2009;
Nottingham Playhouse, Nottingham 4-21 Nov 2009; and the Unicorn Theatre, London 24 – 29 Nov 2009

5 Responses to “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”

  1. Cal says:

    This seems really interesting, I think I will go when it gets to London. There is something magical about literature set during the Civil War. I will let you know what I thought!

  2. Dick says:

    My favourite of Brecht’s. I’ve directed the play twice, finding in the second production textual resonances and staging possibilities that I missed completely first time around.

    I believe that a good production of CCC should engage the audience within initially the linear narrative from the start. To do Brecht justice on stage in bringing this off, one must embrace the paradox that he presents throughout – that of empathy and distance. And it IS a paradox, not a contradiction, as I hope to demonstrate.

    A view of BB might be that he was simply too good a playwright and poet to fulfill his own fierce didacticism concerning the eschewing of the former and the implementation of the latter. Grusha IS a character, not a cipher. Simon IS a character, not a cardboard cutout. Azdak IS a character, not a bloodless assemblage of political symbols. Each must be played as character fearlessly. Brecht has incorporated distancing devices aplenty to enable the processes of thought and reflection required of the audience. Play them as director as hard as the actors must play the characters and the paradox will work. You’ll end up with an audience that will have had its moments of Brecht’s despised empathy from the start. But they will have been subverted by songs in which music counterpoints lyrical sentiment, switchback narrative that interrupts emotional identification, staging techniques that distort and objectify naturalism, and a set that sets a visual context full of symbolism.

    Sorry, John, I seem to be addressing a tutorial! Once a teacher…

    jb says: Thanks, Dick. No need for the apology. It’s good to begin to see it from the inside.

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  4. Alexander says:

    thanks for posting .. sounds like a lot of fun

  5. Dave says:

    Very interesting… have they toured anymore? Are there any other groups adapting this in NA?