22 - Saturday 24 November 2007
Directors Bill Risebero | Ben Horslen
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.
Risebero | November 2007
REVIEW: The Caucasian Chalk Circle
REVIEW: Bertolt Brechts The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Hampstead Parish Church
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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 Platos 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 wifes 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 governors 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 Brechts 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 governors wife whilst Edward Smiths 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
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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.