Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle on London stage

This 8 October 2014 video from London, England says about itself:

An insight into the Unicorn Theatre’s ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’

Blood runs through the streets and the governor’s severed head is nailed to the gates of the city. A young servant girl must make a choice: save her own skin or sacrifice everything to rescue an abandoned child…

A time of terror, followed by a time of peace. Order has been restored and the governor’s wife returns to reclaim the son she left behind. Now the choice is the judge’s: who is the real mother of the forgotten child?

A bold and inventive new production of Brecht‘s moral masterpiece, accompanied by a live and original soundtrack.

By Mary Adossides in England:

All-round excellence: The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Wednesday 28th January 2015

MARY ADOSSIDES recommends a vibrant new production of Brecht’s timely parable on war and justice

The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Unicorn Theatre, London SE1
5 stars

DIRECTED by Amy Leach, with a rich and powerful translation by Frank McGuinness, this visually arresting production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle is unmissable.

Written by Bertholt Brecht in 1944, when he was in exile from the nazis, it recounts the “nature v nurture” parable of maidservant Grusha who rescues a governor’s abandoned child during a bloody civil war and becomes a better mother than his wealthy natural parents in the process.

A sequence of short tableaux shows Grusha’s escape through the mountains as she flees the soldiers to save the young heir, finally leading her to accept marriage with a supposedly dying peasant to provide the child with a roof over his head.

The story culminates with the judgement of Azdak, humorously portrayed by Nabil Shaban, who in typically Brechtian fashion turns concepts of ruling-class justice on their head, accepting bribes from the rich and giving justice to the poor because he “always helped those with nothing to get away with everything.”

In the original Chinese play which Brecht used as a source, the birth mother gains custody of the child but Brecht, who often put the plight of women centre stage, turns nature’s laws on its head.

To demonstrate that Grusha is the true mother, the child is placed in a chalk circle and both Grusha and the governor’s wife are required to pull on its arms.

If they tear the child apart, they will get “half each” — such is Azdak’s justice. “I reared him, I can’t pull him apart!” Grusha declares and Azdak rules that she is the true mother.

Brecht adds a socialist twist to the play’s conclusion, with Azdak confiscating the estates of the governor’s wife so they can be transformed into a children’s garden.

Greatly influenced by Marxist dialectics, this play perfectly demonstrates Brecht’s theory and practise of epic theatre.

His masterly montage of dialogue, songs, tableaux and devices such as props used visibly, costumes on display in the background and songs and chants break up dramatic illusion to encourage the audience’s focus on issues of social justice.

There’s a memorable example of this in the poignant song sung by storyteller and musician Dom Coyote as the two women fight over the child, reminding the audience of Grusha’s anger at the injustice of her fate.

Yet, contrary to perceptions that Brecht’s plays make no emotional connection with the audience, there are many moving scenes, as when Grusha meets soldier Simon Chachava (a touching performance by Caleb Frederick) by the river who declares his love and commitment to her.

This politically nuanced play was very well received by a young audience, who no doubt related to the contemporary references such as terrorist soldiers, an iPod and contemporary costumes.

In my view, these add little to a production performed by an outstanding cast, with Kiran Sonia Sawar giving a memorably spirited portrayal of Grusha.

An excellent production of an exceptional play.

Runs until March 21, box office:

7 thoughts on “Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle on London stage

  1. Pingback: Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle on London stage | The Socialist

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  5. Friday 31st March 2017

    posted by Morning Star in Arts

    TOM GRIFFITHS sees a production of a great Brecht play that misses the political point

    The Caucasian Chalk Circle

    Greenwich Theatre

    London SE10


    Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a multilayered exploration of many of his greatest concerns.

    It’s a play about collectivism and ownership but also about theatre itself. And it poses the question: Can we both revolutionise the means of production and theatre itself in the process?

    It begins with a prologue set in the Soviet Union towards the end of WWII, where two collective farms argue for control of some land.

    Eventually, it’s decided that the more productive collective can take it over rather than the one currently in control.

    As a celebration, the successful farm decides to put on the play The Chalk Circle in which, in the midst of war, the serving girl Grusha takes responsibility for the abandoned child of a noble family.

    Fleeing from troops and enduring many hardships, she comes to think of the child as hers. The climax of the play is the trial in which the biological mother returns and contests “ownership” of the child. In the end Grusha, deemed the one most fit to care for it, keeps the baby.

    Throughout, individual characterisation is eschewed for an allegorical rather than realist style, bringing to mind the stylised performance of the play-within-a-play in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There, “the play’s the thing in which to catch the conscience of the king” but here, though the conscience to be pricked is ours, we are asked if we are able to abandon the “muck of ages,” as Marx called the ideology we have to shed in the revolutionary process.

    Though not rich in character and emotion, the drama is rich in its message. Brecht’s audience is asked to be moved by ideas rather than the “truth” of any particular character’s performance. It’s a gamble and that the sound score for this production is flat and unimaginative is a serious failing.

    There’s much to enjoy in the sense of fun with which Brecht attacks ideas head-on and that comes through sometimes here but, sadly, it’s stifled.

    Brecht makes a courageous all-or-nothing call to arms for any production brave enough to take it on. But the political ideas aren’t the MacGuffin that drive the plot, they are the very heart of The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

    As a result, though this production has its merits, it never achieves the power that is should.

    Runs until April 1, box office:


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