Bertold Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a difficult play to make relevant and enjoyable for a 21st Century audience. The generally more mainstream-oriented Harvest Rain Theatre Company has made a brave attempt to do this, without quite succeeding.
“Does anyone know what’s happening?” cries a woman during the cacophany and chaos of an early scene depicting violence and revolution, and the audience cannot do other than agree with her. A storyline and theme do emerge from the chaos, but not without further distractions and diversions of various kinds, as Brecht’s characters clown about and philosophise. Some of it is funny, but not enough, and little of the theorising is particularly arresting or memorable.
Much of the difficulty with the play comes from the posturing of Brecht’s characters and their lack of humanity. They are for the most part caricatures rather than characters, lacking any dimensionality or human warmth. Harvest Rain’s talented young cast, many of whom have recently played to acclaim in more conventional plays, have tough material with which to work.
Brecht’s brand of “epic theatre” gets the big-scale treatment from director Andrew Buchanan, who makes full use of the large stage of the Gardens Theatre. The wide, deep proscenium stage is dominated by a set of multilayered scaffolding including ladders and ramps, and allowing much three-dimensional movement. The various crowd scenes involving revolutionaries, armies on the move and peasant gatherings work very well (although dialogue is often lost, especially when characters talk upstage). Sound effects and lighting are excellent. A centrally-placed revolving stage (laboriously turned by several of the cast) permits Hollywood-style movement and action. The levels of activity and movement are indeed epic for a stage play, with more than 50 characters played energetically by a cast of 19, accompanied by on-stage musicians.
At the technical level the production is very good. Similarly, the cast work very well as a team. The part of Grusha, one of the few genuine characters in the play, is well played (and sung) by Liz Buchanan. She succeeds in capturing the ordeal of the simple kitchenmaid seeking to care for and protect a lost child. Caroline Kennison does well as narrator. Also excellent is Hayden Spencer as Azdak, the hyped-up village clerk who astonishingly becomes a judge and must determine the question of who will have the child. And special mention must be made of Michael Futcher, who plays a variety of characters with originality and conviction.
But overall, because of the limitations of the text itself, the production fails to engage the sympathy of the audience, to stimulate or adequately to amuse. Brecht would be better left in the Twentieth Century.