“The Caucasian Chalk Circle”, Berliner Ensemble on tour in Luxembourg

Dana Rufolo at the Grand Théâtre
1 March 2023


Who else but the Berliner Ensemble, Bertolt Brecht’s own theatre company located in the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm (in his days, East Berlin), should we turn to for a classically “Brechtian” interpretation of the 1944 play Der Kaukasische Kreidekreis (The Caucasian Chalk Circle)?  Director Michael Thalheimer working with the Berliner Ensemble’s 2017 pre-Covid production of Brecht’s play, now touring, has given us just that: a modern but respectful interpretation of the much slung-about word Verfremdungseffekt that Brecht claims characterizes his theatrical opus, an ‘alienation effect’ that keeps audience members on their toes, supposedly not sucked up into the fairy-tale spin of romantic melodrama.


Stefanie Reinsperger as Grushe. Photo credit: Matthias Horn.


While the chalk used to outline the circle in which two women are to physically fight for possession of the child both claim as their own has transformed into a bucket of red something (is it blood, is it paint, is it Communist Red, is it simply something liquid and messy-looking to grab our attention, to alienate us from our preconceptions of the play as involving a white chalk circle? Or is it all of the above?), the use of focusing devices distinctly references Brecht’s reliance on epic drama as a form of de-dramatization of the action.

These focusing devices include a singer-narrator (Ingo Hülsmann) who, microphone in hand (and largely inaudible in the Grand Théâtre for reasons unknown, presumably technical), sets up each scene. Then, Kalle Kalima punctuates the action using the electric guitar, and there is extensive use of spotlights (lighting by Ulrich Eh) and techniques for pointing out the central protagonist of each scene that include a directly frontal delivery of lines and a physical position which, through repetition, becomes characteristic of Grushe when overwhelmed by circumstances: she lies down on the stage floor on her side, legs akimbo and child (swaddled tightly on a board) in hand.

Of course, researchers and critics have long suspected Brecht of not following his own rules, especially in those of his dramas featuring a mother, a personality type whom he is convinced is possessed by an instinctual desire to nurture her children. Look at Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder for instance (Mother Courage and Her Children) and the famous ‘silent scream’ where wily tough Mother Courage herself, an entrepreneurial spirit profiting from the Thirty Years’ War, suppresses a vocalized scream of distress when asked to identify a corpse she must pretend not to recognize as that of her own son. Brecht’s supposedly almost random naming of the character Anna Fierling as Mother Courage – rather than, for instance, calling her Mother Coward – undercuts his argument that she was intended to represent the nasty side of capitalism.


Peter Luppa and Stefanie Reinsperger.
Photo credit: Matthias Horn.


Or what about Grushe’s foreshadow: Mother Courage’s daughter Kattrin – a virginal lover of children who sacrifices her own life by beating a drum warning of the approaching enemy so as to give villagers time to flee with their children; what could be more emotional than that scene of self-sacrifice? Or look at how malleable and adorable the mother is in the Lehrstück or Learning Play Die Mutter (The Mother).

And, of course, then we have Grushe, the kitchen help in The Caucasian Chalk Circle who rescues the baby son of her capitalistic and rich boss, the Governor, during a revolution and who then claims the child as her own, because it is she and not the biological mother who keeps it alive and healthy.  Limited by his own cultural assumptions, Brecht was incapable of conceiving the mother as anything other than an archetype, all-giving and self-sacrificing.

However, within this stereotype, Thalheimer does his best to break up the maternal female image as a cohesive whole. Stefanie Reinsperger as Grushe is reminiscent of Brecht’s wife who was the first to create the role of Mother Courage; the actress Helene Weigel exuded a clarity of gesture and a sincerity that won the hearts of audience members. She physically embodied the anti-Hollywood Star.


Nico Holonics and Stefanie Reinsperger. Photo credit: Matthias Horn.


Reinsperger in the role of Grusche is lumpy and unfashionable, and her persona exudes a physical cohesion with everything she says. Her head nods rapidly to emphasize the veracity of her words, her hands move in rhythm with her emotions, she speaks distinctly and without a waver of doubt in her voice, and her tones soften with love when the man she truly loves, Simon (Nico Holonics) the soldier returned from the war as a paymaster, greets her. When Simon rejects her (a deviation from the more emotionally generous original script) because he hears that she has brought along a child, Reinsperger’s Grushe retires into silence but does not diminish in stature – nor does she curse or reject the child or her fickle ex-fiancé.  Her simplicity and dignity turn her into the heroine of the play, unchallenged by the biological mother Natella (Sina Martens) whose indifference, coarse hairstyle, and uncomplimentary rich-woman’s outfit exert little appeal on the audience.

Most of Brecht’s original script – that began by narrating how an amoral layperson became the judge Azdak who grants the baby to Grushe – has been eliminated, but two characters who are retained are larger than life. One of these characters is the peasant Jussup (played by Veit Schubert) whom Grushe’s brother forces her to marry so as to give legitimacy to the child she was carrying when she showed up at his farm. Jussup is at death’s door (and one of the most beautiful images I have ever seen on stage is him supposedly dying and standing dead still in the position of an Orthodox saint), but he suddenly becomes healthy again and assaults Grushe sexually (which was not so in the original script).

The other prominent character is Azdak the judge himself, played by Tilo Nest. He is jazzed up with the production’s ubiquitous red liquid splashed on his naked torso body that is covered in tattoos and which resemble hieroglyphics; he sports a mass of wiry black hair as a wig rather than the traditional judge’s soft white wig; he wears long underwear. He is an anti-judge, as in the Brecht original, and yet he is as wise as Solomon in seeing to it that justice is done.  Only of course in Thalheimer’s version the justice done is to give Grushe an impossible burden. The final scene shows her fallen to the floor in the pose that characterizes her crushed by circumstances, suggesting the impossibility of sustaining a simple act of charity in a complex world.

The play remains popular and a colleague has recently reviewed a production in London.