Caucasian Chalk Circle: A Theatre Review

David Feddema

The production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle” done by Oxford University students at the Oxford Playhouse incorporated several excitingly artistic elements into the play while also disregarding some of the original playwright’s primary ideas.

 The play itself was written shortly after World War II, and the years of conflict covered within the epic play showcase the playwright’s thoughts and intentions. Opening with a dispute over land ownership in Soviet Russia, the play introduces the usefulness of theatre in the hopes to solve the argued issue. This scene reveals to the spectators the context of the drama to come, but was cut from the Oxford Playhouse production. Because of this change, one is left with a staggeringly different interpretation.

 The audience is shown, instead, the play beginning with a rebellion that displaces the servant Grusha Vachnadze from her fiancé, the soldier Simon Chachava. The audience is then explicitly told of the temptation to do good by the narrator as Grusha takes and cares for a royal infant left behind. The story of their survival, however, is only half of the play; the other half is that of Azdak becoming judge over the land. Introduced as a rascal, Azdak takes the law into his own hands when he is judge and ends his career after presiding over Grusha and the governess’s case of the ownership of Michael.

 Within this production there were many elements that were inventive and daring. One of the predominant artistic choices made was to substitute the child Michael out for a puppet. This was an incredibly daring decision not only because he is the character that the end conflict pertains to, but also because the character must age six years on stage. These challenges were overcome quite successfully by the production company, who built a finely detailed puppet that was made up of many joints. When the child was a baby, it was no more than a bump in a bundle of blankets whose head was able to wobble. After aging, however, it took a puppeteer to bring life to the boy. They did this well, and the movements of the puppet were well rehearsed, able to portray a living, feeling child.

 A second artistic design that was well used was that of the set. The stage was mainly bare, and the only permanent fixture was the two leveled scaffold. The whole structure had a white sheet draped over it which was used to cast shadows from behind. This allowed the players to create seemingly endless parades of soldiers, or silhouettes of hanged men, solving the problem of a monstrous cast. The drape even extended with a blue sheet to be the required canyon between Simon and Grusha after their many years apart. The set design was an artistic method to solve the practical problems.

 As an ensemble, the student performers were mediocre with two exceptions, that of Luke Rollason playing Azdak and Jack Sain playing Arkadi. Their performances brought energy into the action, and their appreciation for comedic timing lighted upon the more serious undertone of the play.  

 In regards to the authorial intention of the performance of the play, the Oxford University students’ production obviously took a step in a different direction. Bertolt Brecht was a firm believer in verfremdungseffeket: the idea that in order to have an audience consider seriously the content of a play, the production must be self-consciously theatrical and rid the audience of suspense. The way the play was originally written is a testament to this theory, beginning every scene with the summary of the action to come, and having the play-within-a-play watched by both patrons and performing observers. Finally, Brechtian plays have been most successful and authentic to the text when the actors play in a distanced and cooled down approach, rather than have the audience caught up in the emotional tension. These elements were seemingly purposefully abandoned by the production; instead, the action was performed the same way a typical drama would be.

 The characters were brought to life, and the audience was led through the story with a clear emotional idea of which mother was in the right at the end. The production, however, didn’t solely stick with conventional theatrical devices. They included the introduction of each scene, kept the narrator as an external storyteller and had the musicians somewhat exposed to sight. These devices weren’t inherently advantageous or disadvantageous aspects; they simply lacked a clear reason. Whereas a Brechtian production gives them the purpose of breaking down the idea that theatre is an illusion, this production claimed no overt resolve.

 The play was entertaining and utilized some interesting components to make the production engaging for the audience. It had well done performances but in areas was lacking justification for production decisions. While as an attempt at Brechtian theatre it was poor, as a story it was well performed and artistically clever with some unclear choices.