Greenwich Theatre, 28 March – 1 April. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Having seen Lazarus Theatre’s fantastic production of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle performed in the round last year, I couldn’t wait to see what Ricky Dukes would change in this much larger theatre space. The stage was still filled with stacks of plastic chairs and boxes, and the lovely Elizabeth Appleby was now on hand to offer biscuits to bemused members of the audience as they took their seats. Again, it took no time for me to be completely swept away by the show, and the collaborative storytelling kept me enthralled throughout.
Set at the end of WWII in Soviet Georgia, the play begins with a conflict between two rival farm collectives over a valley left abandoned by the Nazis. A storyteller tells the parable of the chalk circle to help resolve the conflict. In the parable, a coup in the city of Nuhka results in the governor’s wife abandoning her infant son. Grusha, a servant girl, saves the baby and takes him to safety in the mountains. She is engaged to Simon, a soldier who had to accompany the fleeing aristocrats, but has promised to return. Grusha eventually reaches her brother’s home, and after a long illness is forced to marry a dying man to end the stigma of single motherhood. Her husband’s miraculous recovery when peace is declared causes problems when Simon finally finds Grusha, and soldiers arrive to take the baby back to his mother in Nuhka. Grusha returns to stake her claim of motherhood in front of incompetent judge Azdak, who eventually implements Solomic law and the trial of the chalk circle. Simple!
Frank McGuiness’ earthy translation is wonderful, and designers Sorcha Corcoran, Stuart Glover (lighting) and Neil McKean (sound) have brilliantly embellished and enhanced the story, never allowing the effects to overshadow the cast. Colour changes, constant circling movement and shifting props that usually make me tut and roll my eyes continue to impress in this production. Ricky Dukes has created something magical. The songs by Robert Locke are perfectly judged and fit seamlessly in the narrative flow. The main difference in this new production is the awareness of the space and its limitations. The air of tension created in a small studio theatre in hedonistic Nuhka after the rebellion would be impossible to recreate here. Instead the movement and comedy is broader, creating a more whimsical and absurd atmosphere that makes the social and political hypocrisy on display more jarring. Unfortunately, the wonderfully effective and simple design that created such drama from being nearly on top of the rickety bridge as Grusha crosses it is completely lost on the larger stage, and no amount of dry ice covers the fact that she’s walking across a row of chairs.
The entire cast have no downtime during the play, covering multiple roles, and their energy and commitment is uplifting. Lakesha Cammock and Elizabeth Appleby are comedy gold in their various roles, while Owen Pullar is fiendishly impressive as the weasel-like judge Azdak.
Still relevant and important, Lazarus bring The Caucasian Chalk Circle crashing into Trump world and Brexit Britain with a club vibe and a sly grin. A fantastic piece of theatre that deserves a longer run. Grab a ticket while you can.