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Theatre Review: The Caucasian Chalk Circle (****)

Michael Cox reviews 'a theatrical triumph'.

Some artists come with a ridiculous amount of baggage. Case in point: Bertolt Brecht—playwright, director, political activist, theorist. Academics and practitioners alike have their views, on the man and the artist. These theories, and people’s interpretations of them, have had a profound effect on 20th Century theatre and have led to countless papers, books and lectures.

These theories also have a nasty potential of overburdening any production of a Brecht play, making reviews a possible hotbed of theoretical discourse rather than a discussion on the merits of what happened on stage. So I’ll leave theoretical tub-thumping on Alienation for others; as a production, the Lyceum’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a theatrical triumph.

The play, a political parable set within a dictatorship, follows two story threads during the course of an uprising: a young servant’s attempt to save the life of an infant to privileged parents and the rise of a man from obscurity to judge. Both threads tie together in the final scene, which features the titular circle.

It’s a complicated piece with multiple scenes, a large cast of characters and a grand scope in time and location. It would be very easy to get lost in the detail, which makes Mark Thomson’s direction all the more impressive: visually stunning with theatrical flourishes throughout a very quick 160 minute running time. Sets glide past, lights flash and a hodgepodge of musical styles serenade throughout, all to wonderful effect. Perhaps narrative is occasionally lost, but the grand theatricality always has the ability to wash over the audience and bring them back into the scene when needed.

And the 13-strong ensemble are phenomenal. Bouncing between characters, style and, for some members, gender, the cast are asked to do a ridiculous amount of heavy lifting throughout, and they do so admirably. Notable stand-outs in the solid company include Sarah Swine’s excellent singer/narrator, Amy Manson’s sympathetic kitchen servant Grusha and Christopher Fairbank, who plays a parade of interesting characters before taking the cheeky and street-smart judge Azdak.

Thomson’s creative team have created an impressive tapestry of theatrics. Karen Tennent’s design and Simon Wilkinson’s lighting serves Brecht’s play and Thomson’s direction equally, and Claire McKenzie’s music is terrifically eclectic. Adam Bennett and Georgina Solo’s puppet design proves much more beautiful and poignant as the play progresses, with Bennett giving life to the crucial role of the infant as the play progresses.

Thomson may have taken a gamble on programming Chalk Circle in the current season, and it is certainly possible that this could possibly leave some traditionalists cold. Still, this is a gamble that pays handsome artistic dividends: it is not only an excellent production but just might be Thomson’s personal best in some time.

Performs at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh until March 14, 2015.

Tags: theatre

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