The Caucasian Chalk Circle is essentially a play within a play, where the conflict between two communities over a mutually valued piece of land is played out through the fable of a serving girl who rescues a baby, abandoned by his affluent self-absorbed mother as she flees from danger, and becomes a far better parent figure to the baby.
Bertolt Brecht’s form of theatre may not be comfortable viewing for everyone – and, arguably, that is what the German modernist playwright set out to achieve when he started to write The Caucasian Chalk Circle in the early 1930s. Whereas a great deal of theatre at that time (and in the present) was based around dramatic theatre (with a plot neatly wrapped up at the conclusion and, based on Stanislavski’s approach or ‘method acting’, with the actors exploring their characters’ motivation in order to create deeper performances), Brecht aimed to use theatre as a tool, often politically driven, to explore and ‘teach’ a particular ideology. In that way, this epic theatre becomes a format where the actors become more narrators than rounded three-dimensional characters – and this is where it can be uncomfortable for the audience, challenging their expectations of what they think should happen on a stage.
AUB students (BA [Hons] Acting) here managed to maintain the edge that Brecht would undoubtedly have approved of while also creating a compelling and engaging piece of theatre that resonated with first class performances, enhanced by a very impressive set, and both atmospheric and dramatic lighting; the contemporary costumes, hair and make-up helped to bring the play, written in the first part of the 20th century, right up to date, incorporating modern styles with the ethnic setting of an unnamed Syrian region that was chosen as the venue for this production. Each of these production elements are an excellent credit to the students from the BA [Hons] Costume & Performance Design and Make-up for Media & Performance courses.
From the moment of walking into the University’s Studio Theatre, the combination of that first sight of the striking scenery, haze, warmth of the studio, sound effects of chirping insects and blowing wind, with the actors mingling or sitting in their groups, watching the audience as they entered, I thought that this was going to be something special and I eagerly anticipated the afternoon ahead.
Under the excellent direction of Graham Hubbard and Musical Director Karen Wimhurst, each member of the 11-strong cast* created vivid, memorable characters, gelling together magnificently to create a cohesive production whilst showcasing a multitude of individual talent. Like my colleague, Phil Vivian, during his review for AUB’s previous production, Girls Like That, I really don’t want to single any individual out for special mention, as each had their moments to shine without ever drawing focus away from anyone else, and this was an outstanding ensemble production.
With all round performances packed full of pathos, warmth, spirit, drive, rage and control reflecting genuine connections between characters, the direction, staging and heightened elements of their performances were also a tribute to the Brechtian technique of reminding the audience that they are watching actors on a stage, rather than becoming emotionally involved with the characters. The range of accents, changes in physicality and vocal tones from each actor reinforced just how talented this group of young performers are as they start out in what will hopefully be long and successful careers. The pace was brisk, the timing spot on, faultless tableaux, synchronicity of movement perfectly executed, the accents sounding totally faithful to their origin (so much so that at times the broad authenticity made some of the dialogue a little difficult to comprehend – but that was with particular accents from north of the border to a southern ear, so the ‘fault’ of the listener, not the actors!).
I expected intensity, drama, passion and commitment in their performances, in what could be described as “the impact of war story” inherent in The Caucasian Chalk Circle; what was an unexpected delight (and surprise to me with my previous experiences of Brecht productions) was the humour and perfect split-second comic timing that was interwoven throughout the play.
What I confess I had forgotten about was the Brechtian use of music in his plays. AUB’s incorporation of music into their production was simply superb; the songs were a vital component of the narrative and brilliantly interpreted, the instruments played with seeming ease by the actors, and the use of these instruments and the actors’ vocal techniques to produce convincing sound effects wonderfully well, added magnificently to the overall ambience.
This was a stunning, splendid piece of theatre. From what I have read about the previous AUB productions and my experience of this one, if you have tickets for The Winter’s Tale (5 – 7 December), then you are in for a wonderful treat. If you don’t have tickets yet, I would advise you to make every effort to do so!
Tickets are £5 from aub.ac.uk/aubproductions
* (Cast alphabetically) Idil Aydinli, Lisa Bazley, Laura Bertelli, Mathew Bircher, Harry Drane, Jordan Sky Finding, Asgeir Gunnarsson, Anthony Lane, Emma McCalpin, Ana Petrova, Miles Spake