Jeremy Malies in south-west London
14 October 2022
This is a play that shows two competing groups trying to wrest land from each other. As blame and counter-blame rages between Ukraine and Russia over exactly what happened during a missile attack on a key bridge in Crimea, you would think that Brecht’s 1944 piece would be a play for our times and could hardly fail. Think again.
The ensemble. Photo credit: Iona Firouzabadi.
In some clumsy updating of the initial framing device, Joanna Kirkland portrays a UN official at a refugee transit station who even hovers in her dialogue between describing events as “war” or “a special military operation”. You feel that if adaptor Steve Waters and director Christopher Haydon could have used a sledgehammer, they would have resorted to it. Kirkland tells the refugees that a company of theatre makers are going to work with them to produce a piece of drama which is how we get into the main narrative and the play-within-a-play. The idea is sound, but the delivery is unsubtle.
Even amid all the topicality, this production by the Rose Theatre (not a receiving house here but the originator of the project with MGC) often remains flat. It features – and this list is from her own Twitter account profile – the actress, singer, author and vlogger Carrie Hope Fletcher. A major star from recent musicals, Fletcher plays the pivotal role of Grusha, an idealistic but by no means naïve servant girl who rescues and seeks to foster a boy whose aristocratic mother has deserted him during the fog of war. The mother (Kirkland multi-roling impressively) has discarded him as unnecessarily heavy baggage when carrying her favourite clothes is a more important alternative.
A huge name who is now set to progress from ingénue singing roles to principal characters anchoring heavyweight plays in which she will no doubt excel, Fletcher succeeds with the fleeting harmonies in an often-discordant new score by composer Michael Henry. In the past, Henry has never been scared to experiment with form but there was a derivative quality here.
The show should not be seen as a star vehicle for Fletcher. She proves the ultimate team player, never sucking the oxygen away from the ensemble though I would wager that many in the audience had simply come to watch her. Her acting is almost cinematic despite the broad sweep of the Rose stage, and even with the deliberate injection of Brechtian non-realism and distancing, she forms a credible couple with love interest Nickcolia King-N’da as Simon. You can see Grusha’s thought processes as she makes long-term decisions that offer the best chance of them being reunited after the war.
The ensemble. Photo credit: Iona Firouzabadi.
One other performance comes close to rescuing this clunky undertaking. As Azdak, the corrupt and booze-sodden but by no means totally amoral judge, Jonathan Slinger excels with a sardonic spin on the many great lines for him in the original text as translated from the German by Brecht’s friend, the Anglo-American critic Eric Bentley. Waters has the sense to leave most of these speeches intact. But elsewhere, he is too keen to use ultra-contemporary idiom when the power of the speeches doesn’t need it and universality of impact suffers as a result.
Slinger isn’t enough to save this, and I never empathised with one of the other fulcrum characters. Zoe West, as the singing narrator, must propel us through the inordinately long (90 minutes) first act. West can’t decide if she is Dylan or Billy Bragg, and she really should choose one or the other. Perhaps, even better, she could find her own voice and style.
Shiv Rabheru, as the dying elderly peasant who rises with vigour after he is married to Grusha, excels with physical comedy as he swaps his deathbed for a bathtub and demands to be washed thoroughly by the bride. It takes a lot to amuse me with physical comedy, but this was one of my highlights of the evening. It was also truly Brechtian. However high-minded and political he may have been, Brecht relished slapstick as shown in the non-stop farcical content of his short overlooked play A Respectable Wedding reviewed in this 2019 festival round-up.
Mark Jonathan’s lighting design is unobtrusive but effective; he uses a predominantly red palette which can suggest everything from sunrise to munitions exploding a few miles away on the front lines. Artfully, light is projected through cut-outs in the walls to show mountain villages on the horizon.
The three-tier set by Oli Townsend is versatile with the wires of the refugees’ bedsteads becoming prison bars and other components of the back wall detaching to form the treacherous bridge that confronts Grusha on her epic journey through the Caucasus mountains. The set is one of the few elements in the production that might effectively serve the spirit and message of the play. And yet, Haydon’s generally loose approach allows much shimmying up and down ladders to no great purpose and supposedly comic marching about on a high balcony.
Carrie Hope Fletcher as Grusha. Photo credit: Iona Firouzabadi.
And what is the message that is inadequately conveyed here? There is a consensus that it is the idea that motherhood should be judged not primarily on blood ties but on meaningful interaction with and self-sacrifice for the good of a child from a nurturing figure. The tug of love is one of the few true successes of the evening.
Working with props supervisor Fahmida Bakht, Haydon (who is artistic chief at the Rose) has the clever idea of representing the child as a doll that grows as the story progresses. Finally, we are presented with a child actor who has also been on stage at the prequel refugee camp.
In the nub of the plot, Kirkland (the errant mother) and Grusha are invited by Azdak to tug violently at the child and wrench him out of a circle drawn in chalk. Grusha cannot bear to strain the child’s limbs and of course gets the nod from Azdak as the more caring, less egotistical parent figure. One of a roster of four actors, Daniel Aiden Matembe excelled as the child on the night I visited. Amid a robust struggle, he maintained his composure and even ended the evening with some adept break-dancing.
There are many positives here, but I don’t think you can do three-quarter-throttle Brecht. The Singer tells us that we are moving into new “episodes” but there are no placards and no use of information boards giving statistics. The music is all produced in front of us, but I want everybody, stagehands right down to ice-cream sellers, visible around the theatre to create the Brechtian distance. This is “Brecht light” and with few memorable aspects.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is an unwieldy sprawling play. (Peter Hall would have used the word “baggy”.) At three hours after a delayed curtain-up, this was an arduous evening with limited appeal and reward. I expect Brecht to alienate me from the plot (or ensure that it does not coalesce too convincingly) so that I’m receptive to political messaging. But here I felt separated from the whole endeavour.
Jonathan Slinger as Azdak.
Photo credit: Iona Firouzabadi.