Thursday 22 - Saturday 24 November 2007
Hampstead Parish Church


Directors Bill Risebero | Ben Horslen



Elie Ball
Worker, Petitioner, Cook, Elder Lady, Mother,
Peasant Woman

Sarah Barron
Arkadi the Singer

Deirdre Flood
Peasant Woman, Nurse, Merchant Woman,
Neighbour, Old Woman

David Gardner
Worker, the Ironshirt Corporal, Neighbour, Stableman

Andrew Grieve
Worker, Grusha’s fiancé Simon, Peasant,
the fugitive Grand Duke, Irakli the Bandit

Moray Jones
Peasant, Governor Georgi Abashvili, Groom, Merchant,
Monk, Ironshirt, Old Man

Simon Malpas
Older Man, Doctor, Old Man, Neighbour, Ironshirt

Jane Mayfield
Kato the Agronomist, Petitioner, Woman, Maidservant,
Neighbour, Ludovica, Townswoman

Stephen Pucci
Peasant, Blockhead the Ironshirt, Neighbour,
Innkeeper, Lawyer

Bill Risebero
Doctor, Azdak the Clerk

Luke Robson
Wounded Soldier, Adjutant, Merchant, Yussup,
Shauva the

Barbara Salmon
Tractor Woman, Woman Servant, Peasant Woman,
Grusha’s sister-in-law Aniko, Neighbour,
Old Woman, Townswoman

Jo Siddall
Young Worker, the Rider, Merchant Girl, Neighbour,
Kazbeki’s nephew Bizergan

Edward Smith
The Expert, the Fat Prince Kazbeki, Innkeeper,
Grusha’s brother Lavrenti, Farmer, Lawyer

Stephanie Stapleton
Tractor Girl, Young Servant, Younger Lady, Neighbour,
Peasant Girl, Townsgirl

Sally Wallen
Peasant Woman, the Governor’s wife Natella Abashvili,
Merchant Woman, Neighbour

Hannah Williams
Worker, Grusha the Servant girl




Musical Director
Leo Duarte

Robert Ames
Dan James
Beatrice Scaldini


Bill Risebero | Ben Horslen

John Risebero

Original Music
Leo Duarte

Barbara Salmon

Christine Risebero

Stage Managers
Annie Duarte | Christine Risebero

Sound Operator
Pascale Karanjia


Performing Brecht in a church must be unusual - his Communism and atheism are well-known. Less well-known perhaps, is his lifelong fascination with both the forms and the substance of Christianity. Brecht knew his Bible better than many (possibly most) Christians, repeatedly referred to Christian ideas, or followed Christian forms, in his own work, and grappled with the same problems - good and evil, life and death, Heaven and Hell, love and hate, hope and despair - as a Christian does.

At the centre of Brecht`s work lies a humane compassion for the predicament of the poor, the extremes they are driven to by an unfair social system - and the conviction that people deserve something better. Through a lifetime of composing poetry, and of writing and directing plays, he sought to expose the basic facts about an unequal society, and to force us all to confront them. His well-known (even notorious) theories about the theatre - like making his characters address the audience directly, or not concealing the essential artifice of performance - were intended to make sure such political points came across clearly.

However, before you walk out again, fearing a didactic tract, consider also that to Brecht, the master dramatist (to some, the greatest of the 20th century), the theatre is first and foremost for entertainment. His earliest plays, perhaps, were entertainment without a clear political message, and some others were political without being much fun. But his last six or so great plays, of which The Caucasian Chalk Circle is the culmination, bring both aspects together in a magnificently assured way.

In The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Brecht has lost none of his earlier political commitment. Ideas about class, oppression, poverty, wealth and privilege, appropriated property, injustice to women, false religion and hypocrisy are all held together by his insistence that there must be a fairer way of organizing the world than this.

But the play is much more. It is both funny and poetic, both lively and contemplative; it has violence and gentleness, cruelty and kindness. And above all it is a well-told story. Putting an old Chinese folk-tale into a modern context, it tells of Grusha, a servant girl, and her growing love for her unwillingly adopted child, of her efforts to protect him from the dangers of war, and the ultimate pain of being asked to give him up. This final dénouement is one of the play`s many moving passages, when the decision as to the true mother of the child is made by Azdak, the drunken, reprobate judge.

One main theme of the play is that of justice, and the contrast between Azdak`s idea of justice for the deserving, and the legalistic, bourgeois justice he clearly despises. Another is love - Grusha`s hopeless, tender love for her soldier fiancé Simon, separated from her by the circumstances of war, and her growing love, almost against her will, for the young child with whom the same circumstances have brought her together.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a major example of Brecht`s `epic theatre`, the form he specifically devised in order to combine instruction with entertainment. `Epic theatre`, he said, `is…hardly thinkable without artists of virtuosity, imagination, humour and fellow-feeling` - a challenge indeed. We hope to rise to the challenge - both to instruct and to entertain.

Bill Risebero | November 2007

REVIEW: The Caucasian Chalk Circle

by Diana Raymond
from Hampstead Parish Church Magazine
January 2008

Discovery always comes with a gleam on it, whether it be the tomb of Tutankhamun or the recovery of that especial biro that you lost the day before yesterday. Bertolt Brecht has till now, I'm afraid, been something of a closed stage to me, so I came to this production with, you might say, an open mind. But I was very soon filled and rewarded by the discovery of fascinating new territory. I could not, it seems to me, have had a more excellent interpretation of the Chalk Circle than this by Ben Horslen and Bill Risebero. I was unprepared for the lightness which comes over in a fine flourish from the colour and the music. (The musicians under Leo Duarte played their full part in establishing this new territory.) Colour in the costumes by Christine Risebero made a vivid impression. Lightness, yes - and humour, of course. So well handled by all concerned, particularly by Moray Jones in the 'wedding' scene, and later by Bill Risebero himself - but more of that in time.

The singer, Arkadi, played with great assurance by Sarah Barron, took all our attention. She looked splendid and sang truly and poignantly. In a production where (at the last count) 16 actors play 80 parts one cannot but salute the skill with which they all change character and coats, and of the speed and grace with which they change places on the stage. The aggressive Ironshirts, epitomised by David Gardner, make their sinister mark upon the story. I have many pictures in my mind of the actors before me - particularly when Azdak the Judge sits high on the judgement seat, while those who wait upon his words surround him below.

Brecht, of course, is concerned with large and humane issues such as care for the poor and justice in its true form - something different from legality. Indeed - though he subscribed to no faith - he seems to be saying that he who would gain his life will lose it, and that the meek will inherit the earth - (as someone once said, if they don't, no one else will.) But he is also concerned with the enduring human emotions such as pity and love. Grusha the young servant girl (most attractively played by Hannah Williams) engages all our sympathy in her growing love for the abandoned child, and her love for her fiancé, Simon, whom she fears to lose. It is a good and convincing story (Andrew Grieve is a very engaging lover, and the scene when they are reconciled is truly moving.)

And so we come to the denouement. And Azdak. Who makes the final choice as to who will keep the child: Grusha who has devoted cared for him, or the Governor's wife (a wicked witch finely interpreted by Sally Wallen) who has abandoned him in favour of her ball gowns. Azdak, the drunken and reprobate judge, is a wonderful character, and it was splendid to see Bill Risebero take to it with such assurance. He is very funny, and of course something more - and entirely convincing. His so convenient and intentional 'error' in divorcing not the aged couple who have never liked each other, but Grusha from the moribund peasant whom she has married when in desperate straits, crowns the way of justice that Azdak follows. This with the reuniting of Grusha with her lover gives one a sense of cords disentangling, of the world - for a time, at any rate - turning kind.

Brecht demands a lot from his performers - that becomes increasingly evident. And very evident too is the total commitment of all involved in this production - both those onstage, and those behind the scenes. (Is lighting behind the scenes? Certainly Howard Hudson worked his usual magic.) And John Risebero played his part in his skillful design of the set. But how to end this complex and fascinating story which frequently turns the accepted shape of things upside down? ...

Why with a dance, of course.

And so they take to the floor, Grusha and Simon, the old couple who never liked each other, and the rest of those on the stage. And as I watched them, revolving gently in time to the music, I had a sense of past productions as well as the excellence of the present. How good to come again to the Church, to see new territory discovered, a play performed with such dedication and such art.


REVIEW: Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Hampstead Parish Church

By Sheila Cornelius

* * * *
To set Brecht’s great Marxist drama in a church seems at best paradoxical, at worst misguided. In fact, it is a revelation - comparable perhaps to one’s first experience of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ against a backdrop of real trees or Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’ in the shadow of one of England’s ‘Great Houses’ – the setting enhances the work and its themes.

The grey pillars of Hampstead Church disappearing into the high sepulchral gloom, emphasise the frantic action of the ‘epic theatre’ to which Brecht aspired - through instruction and entertainment showing the human condition as it is and a glimpse of how it might be better ordered. The immanence of the cool gloom, tempered by a glass of red wine on the pew shelf in front, recalls Plato’s cave as metaphor for life.

It also it works to enhance the biblical themes inherent in the play. Bertolt Brecht, product of a devout Catholic upbringing in Bavaria, rejected a belief system with which he was intimately acquainted and which influenced his writing. Although originating mainly from a Chinese folk tale, references to dates in the Christian calendar associates the work with medieval Mystery plays whilst its theme of natural justice relates it to the biblical judgement of Solomon.

Written in 1944, the play combines a ‘meanwhile, in a different part of the battlefield’ linear progression, a narrative which is basically a love test set against the upheavals of war with a ‘play within a play’. In a prologue which parallels the main action, two groups of peasants dispute the ownership and potential use of a piece of land. In combining the perennial Marxist ownership theme with a surprisingly topical concept of sustainability the main theme of the play is both introduced and resolved before the main action proceeds. It also introduces the idea of collaborative action which is so important to an understanding of the play.

Brecht aimed to show that social factors produce behaviour patterns and value systems. The scenes combine broad comedy with pointed irony. He contrasts, for instance, the high status wife’s migraines and preoccupation with fine clothes with a proposal scene stressing the importance of good health and a willingness to work as desirable female qualities. The governor’s wife rescues her dresses but leaves her son behind; Grusha the servant girl raises the child despite physical hardship and moral coercion whilst waiting for lover to return from the fighting.

The depiction of ordinary men and women as victims of rising prices and social injustice embraces religion oppression – Grusha, unable to reveal the child is not hers, faces the harsh Russian winter because her sister-in-law is too ‘pious’ to have an unmarried mother in the house and is forced into marriage to satisfy religious convention. As in other plays by Brecht, the typical foot soldier lacks the cruel instincts and detachment of his officers. 'The soldiers shoot each other whilst the officers salute each another' according to one character's summary.

Although the play does rely to a great deal on ensemble playing, demonstrated to an admirable degree by the Hampstead Players, it depends on a strong stage presence for the role of Arkadi the Singer, who acts as a kind of chorus, narrating and commenting on the action, fulfilling one of the Brecht’s ‘alienation’ techniques whereby the audience is encouraged not just to get carried away by the emotions of the play but engage in an interior discussion with its meaning. Her lines carry much of the elegiac strength of the language contrasted with the comic ‘homespun’ sayings of the lesser characters.

Here the role is admirably filled by the tall dark-haired Sarah Barron, her relaxed, almost languid stance distinguishing her from the protagonists caught up in the action and her strong voice penetrating to the back pews. A trio of excellent musicians alongside the stage contribute vocally as well as instrumentally.

Hannah Williams makes an admirably credible Grusha, appearing in almost every scene and needing to convey an almost impossible, one might say Christ-like wide-eyed but stoical central role combining endurance with responsibility, helplessness and strength. Also memorable is Andrew Grieve as the vulnerable lover and axe-wielding bandit, and Steve Pucci as Blockhead, the reluctant soldier with attitude.

Sally Wallen is excellent as the haughtily governor’s wife whilst Edward Smith’s comic versatility enlivens several minor scenes. Bill Riseboro combines a strong stage presence in the pivotal role of Azdak the reprobate clerk turned drunken judge with a flair for direction, making admirable use of the space into which this masterpiece of modern drama so unexpectedly fits.



REVIEW: The Caucasian Chalk Circle

By Andrew Valentine

* * * * *

Tread the weaving path around Hampstead Parish Church, just past the ivied crypt, and find the beating creative heart of The Hampstead Players, who have made it their home for over thirty years.

Their latest offering is The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a story of how the things that keep us safe can so easily turn on us.

Adapted by Brecht from an old Chinese story, this is a personal and darkly comic tale of love, class, politics and war about a maid who unwillingly adopts a child of the nobility to protect him during a time of civil war.

By choosing to save the child, she throws her life and future into havoc. Her overwhelming struggle to keep the child safe soon begins to conflict with the life she had before the outbreak of civil war. As the nobility return to power, and custody of the child is decided by a self-indulgent judge, it seems that the motivations of the establishment are too often a combination of whim and a wandering sense of justice.

This is a story of individual struggle and a stiff look at the political and social machinery which we each believe is roughly on our side. It is as relevant now as it was when first performed, given the assumption of political benevolence and stability we base our lives upon today.

The Hampstead Players are true lovers of performance, and have one of the best spaces of any amateur group in London. Started in the mid-70s by the then vicar, they are bound to the church in which they perform and their continued presence is tolerated by the congregation due to the passion that they invest in their work

Not an easy play to perform, the narrative involves over eighty characters to be enacted by a cast of just over ten and the challenge is taken on well here. The main characters are given a vitality that infuses the harsh, romantic and absurdly comic element that this play needs. Often characters travel between the stage and the shadows of the church, allowing the story to unfold around the audience in a visceral way.

Passion runs through this performance like a pulsing nerve and this really makes the Hampstead Players who they are.