‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by August 4, 2016

‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ was penned in 1944 by modernist playwright, Bertolt Brecht whilst he lived in America. Originally, it was presented as a student theatre production, and did not reach Brecht’s German hometown until 1954.

Based on a 14th century, Chinese fable ‘The Circle of Chalk’; this is the Black Swan State Theatre Company’s first international collaboration. Presented in the ‘Beijing or Peking Opera’ style that combines music, speech, mime, dance and acrobatics is part of the 2016 Winter Arts Festival.

‘The Chalk Circle’ parable is usually presented as a dramatic tragedy. Here we are taken back to the original folk tale. It is presented with Brechtian techniques, in a traditional setting but with contemporary middle-class dialogue, at times quite coarse. The upshot is approaching an adults’ pantomime, which may come as a shock to the purists, but it is fresh and great fun. Brecht actually wrote music and songs for the play, but these have been added to and refined.

This innovative, 3-hour presentation can be seen nightly in the Heath Ledger Theatre, within the State Theatre Centre of WA in Northbridge. Performances are at 7.30 until Sunday 14th August – the sixtieth anniversary of Brecht’s death. There are also some matinées.

 

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The story is set in the Soviet Union area of Galinsk around the end of the Second World War.

The stage is like that of a new theatre. There is no backcloth, no flats in the wings, any drapes or scenery of any kind. A few well-chosen props are on the stage, along with wardrobe racks. (Set Designer Richard Roberts assisted by Lui Hong Ping).

As the play begins, three layered, sculptured backcloths are raised from the floor; they give a wonderful appearance of mountains in a mist. A Chinese gateway arch is rolled into position.

The men who are exalted officials wear the stunning, brightly coloured and highly embroidered, Hanfu, and the ladies traditional Princess costumes. The Costume Designer, Zhao Yan, although still young, she has designed for more than six dozen productions.

With little scenery, the demands on the Lighting Designer, Mark Howett to create atmosphere, was high.

      The actors wander onto the stage in their black, rehearsal trackies and T-shirts. They begin their warmup routine, and then select their masks from a rack of specially designed façades (Designer of props and masks, Professor Zhang Huaxiang).

 

‘The Singer’ (Musical Director/Sound Designer, Dr Clint Bracknell) with guitar in hand, takes his seat at the foot of the proscenium arch. Accompanied by a brightly dressed, indigenous singer (Lynette Narkle), the two beautiful voices set the scene.

     The Malaysian percussionist, Arunachala, attacks the timpani – the play has begun.

     In the town of Nuhka, the church is filling for Easter Mass. The slimy Fat Prince (Luke Hewitt) ingratiates himself with the powerful Governor, Georgi (Geoff Kelso) and his egotistical wife, Natella (Caitlin Beresford-Ord) as they sweep past the peasants. The Prince admires the Governess’s new baby, Michael, who has been left outside the church with the maid, Grusha (Alex Malone). Two soldiers are admiring Grusha, when one, Simon (James Sweeny) tells his dim friend (Kenneth Ransom) how he has watched her bathing in the river. Grusha is horrified.

     The Fat Prince has arranged a political coup, and with the Government deposed and her husband dead, Natella escapes the heartless, murdering Ironshirts (Adam Booth, Alison van Reeken). In doing so, she leaves her son behind, yet takes time to collect her expensive wardrobe of clothes.

     Grusha is keen to look after the baby, but with the gestapo-like Ironshirts searching for the child, she accepts the help of a kindly peasant woman (Kylie Farmer, Indigenous name Kaarljilba Kaardn). They escape across the northern mountains to her brother (Steve Turner), Lavrenti’s farm; well away from the Governor’s friends and the Ladies of the Court (Felicity McKay) who may recognise her.

       What will become of Grusha? Her lovers on the way? Moreover, the baby? Who is Judge Azdak?

 

Directed by Dr Wang Xiaoying, the Vice President of the National Theatre of China, with Assistant Directors, music graduate, Chen Tao and Melbourne based, Hong Kong born, Felix Ching Ching Ho who is an independent theatre director, a new freshness was brought to the Perth stage. The pace was cracking; with stagehands and cast moving the props in and out within seconds, the story retained its drive wonderfully.

Most of the players had several characters to play, and with a different mask for each one, the appearance could change, but the facial expressions disappeared, putting the focus onto the body language. Steve Turner probably had the largest number of personalities to perform, each being rich in detail.

In the first Act, Alex Malone as Grusha was magnificent, giving a full range of emotions. The play requires the occasional song, and her beautifully soft, sweet voice was crystal clear. In Act 2, one of our masters of the stage, Geoff Kelso, proved that he still has that magic touch. His comic delivery was brilliant and his singing left the audience gaping at the quality of his crooning.

The whole cast worked unrelentingly to give the audience an inventive, novel production.