Bruiser’s Caucasian Chalk Circle Proves Big Hit With Audiences
Sometimes when you are waiting on a bus and they never seem to come.. they they all arrive at once!
It was like that with the Caucasian Chalk Circle when I first saw it at The MAC in Belfast three weeks ago then at the Down Arts Centre on its provincial tour by the well known Bruiser Theatre Company.
The MAC experience was interesting in that we waited in the warm, comfortable lounge then moved onto the theatre auditorium to the sounds of a chilling wind blowing over Grishinia (Georgia) and it was then that I had wished I had put on my thermals! Bertolt Brecht’s masterpiece was first shown in Berlin in 1954 and has been one of the most popular powerful plays of this dramatist since.
In typical Bruiser tradition, this production was fast moving, gripping, entertaining and technically proficient. From the entrance of the peasant farmers banging their pitchforks on the stage which would wake ip any sleepy audience, the play took off at a steady seamless gallop.
The plot is centred round peasant servant Grusha who loves and cares for the fat governor’s wife’s child, Michael. Set around the 1940’s in the Soveiet Union, the characters are caught up in a conflict between the fruit growing commune trying to modernise so they can be part of the export dynamic of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Exporting was to bring electricity, schools and prosperity to their lives. But the goat farming commune were settled in the ways and rejected this. This point of dramatic tension was the backdrop for the personal struggle of Grusha who grabs Michael when a revolution occurs and saves him from certain death as the son of the aristocracy. The governor’s wife has fled but this time, having fussed over which dresses to take, she leaves her son behind in the rush.
The plot complicates and Grusha has met soldier Simon who goes off to the wars – after asking for her hand in marriage and she accepts. But as Grusha flees the rebellion with Michael, to the mountains of the north, she leaves the young boy at the door of a peasant farmer to be cared for.
The actors in the play played multiple roles and sang, played instruments (clarinet, violin, trumpet, and guitar) with an array of songs through the unfolding dramas – all with a very Eastern European aire. Interestingly, Brecht known for his experimentation on stage, introduced the Singer who acts similar to the Narrator in Greek tragedy, and the Chorus is carefully crafted from the modern characters on hand on stage again adding a unique but traditional dramatic feature.
As the plot unravels, Grusha had married a dying peasant farmer who springs back to life, and one is certainly left looking at a society where women are treated inequally as social underlings – and possible Brecht may have been aware of this as he wrote which conflicted with the ideal of what the Soviet Union was really about.
The comic plot twists again as Azdak, a aremer, is appointed as a judge, after having fed the starving Duke who was on the run. He shelters the Duke and eventually is appointed as judge in a twist upstaging the Governor’s foppish nephew.
The play thunders to a climax as Grusha is tied up in a marriage she does not want, having married to prevent stigma as an unmarrie dmother. There was political turmoil all around and she was being pursued by the guards. Then as a final court scene arrives, she is accidently divorced from the hitherto ‘dying’ husband and can marry Simon. But the test by judge Azdak of the Chalk Circle remains. He places Michael the governor’s son in the circle and asks the goveror’s wife and Grushina to pull and whoever wins is the mother.
Azdak deemed Grushina to be the best mother as she let go Michael as she did not want to hurt him. With more song, dance and music, the play comes to an energetic conclusion.
In comparing the two productions at the MAc and the Down Arts Centre, there was little between them. The MAC performance was on a bigger stage and the dance movements looked more fluid, but for the packed audience at the Down Arts Centre, they were seeing a provincial Bruiser production at its best, and they loved it!
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a world class play and proves that it can drill down successfully to provincial theatres such as in Downpatrick.