Caucasian Chalk Circle

  • Date:
    Saturday, April 26, 1997

    I have to admit I'm not a great fan of 'Theatre de Complicite' whose previous work at the National includes 'The Street of Crocodiles' and 'Out of a House Walked a Man..' Both of which I didn't like nor could I quite understand what they were about. However, this play is far better and easier to follow, with an interesting moral message at the end.

    The story is set in Georgia, after the end of World War II, and a mediaeval Georgia. The play starts with a prologue about how the land will now be used. There are some sections of people who want a part of the land irrigated so they can grow more crops and the other for more traditional farming methods, but a plan had already been drawn up allowing for the irrigation of the land. What follows is an abstract play within a play where a story is told as to why the decision for the irrigation of the land was the best choice.

    Basically it's the story of Grusha (Juliet Stevenson), a servant girl who rescues the baby of the governess ( Helene Patarot) who abandoned the child during a revolution. She cares for the child and begins an epic journey to protect the child from the revolutionists who want the child dead, as he is heir to the city. Several years pass and eventually the governess tracks her down and wants her child back, who is around 7-years-old now. However, Grusha obviously loves the child and treats him has her own, thus a court hearing is held to decide who is the real mother.

    Juliet Stevenson (The Duchess of Malfi, Wyndham's ) is superb as Grusha, a woman who goes through a lot of hardship to protect the child. A believable and confident performance. Also believable is Helene Patarot, as the mean, cruel and greedy governess. I was also impressed with Jeffery Kissoon who played the narrator and singer. He has a mesmerising and powerful voice which carried the play along reliably.

    The critics are not too impressed on the production and the acting. NICHOLAS de JONGH in the EVENING STANDARD , does not agree with me on the acting, he says " The actors miss the cutting but controlled Brechtian tone - Jeffery Kissoon's florid narrator for example. Miss Stevenson's Grusha is hopelessly well bred..." CHARLES SPENCER in the DAILY TELEGRAPH review wasn't too impressed either, he says "....a depressingly unfunny gallery of grotesques and a tiresomely florid narrator (Jeffery Kissoon)...Grusha is a one-dimensional character....", but IRVING WARDLE in the THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH says "Stevenson's Grusha....thrilling." and BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE in the TIMES review say "...Although her Grusha gets less gormless-looking as the evening bangs along, she never loses an underfed, pinched look..." So mixed reviews from the critics, but I myself could not fault any of the performers.

    The Olivier theatre has been converted into the round for this production and it is very impressive. You get a more personal and intimate contact with the play which I believe works far better than if it had been done normally. There are minimal sets, but the use of props like a chair and table and a few poles are used ingeniously to great effect . Most costume changes are done on stage, however, as there is such a lot happening very quickly you hardly notice the changes.

    Lasting about three and half hours the play is long, too long in my opinion. But nevertheless, it is a brilliantly, intelligently put together production and is clever and well acted. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, I myself have mixed feeling about it but I'm just thankful in the end to finally understand what is happening in a 'Theatre de Complicite' production, but then that's probably the National theatre's influence!

    (Darren Dalglish)

    One of this year's most eagerly awaited productions has just entered the repertoire at the Royal National Theatre. The reason for the sense of anticipation felt about this production is not so much the play itself, although it is the first time it has been staged at either of the country's main national companies for over twenty years, but more the decision to stage it "in the round" in the Olivier Theatre.

    A considerable amount of work (and indeed money) has gone into transforming the huge auditorium for this production and "Marat/Sade" (which opens next month). The front few rows of the stalls have been removed and the stage appears to have been extended to fill the space, and banks of seating of similar appearance and quality to the existing seating have been constructed at the back of the stage. In addition, tow or three rows of seats have been placed on both sides of the stage so that the performance area is completely surrounded by the audience.

    Before seeing the play, I knew that the Olivier Circle was going to be closed for this venture and I had wondered what effect this would have on the atmosphere inside the auditorium. A huge canopy has been suspended over the entire auditorium and stage which gives the feeling of being inside a circus tent, and at times during the performance certainly creates an intimacy that is not normally felt in the Olivier.

    "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" has been directed by Simon McBurney, the Artistic Director of Theatre de Complicite, whose inventiveness and visual flair is evident in this production.

    The story centres on Grusha, a servant, who unwillingly takes charge of her employer's son following his execution. We witness her ordeals as she flees the rebellion, and also her growing love for the boy, Michael. The boy's real mother returns to claim him, and Grusha has to fight for him before a corrupt judge (played by Simon McBurney himself).

    Juliet Stevenson compelling portrayal of Grusha, despite Brecht's view that an audience should be emotionally detached from the action on the stage, means that one cannot help but feel sympathy towards her character. Simon McBurney makes the most of his role as Azdak, the judge, and gives a wickedly funny performance. Jeffrey Kissoon as the Singer (narrator) is a commanding presence throughout the play.

    The sequence in which Grusha has to cross a river is executed with simplicity but provides an incredibly effective moment of real tension.

    The whole production flows with ease, aided by imaginative movement (Lilo Baur) and ethereal music (Gerard McBurney). The character of the young Michael is realised by some wonderful puppetry throughout the play. Helen Chadwick's Georgian songs provide moments of rousing emotion and are sung with clarity and resonance by the whole cast.

    The National's experiment with "in the round" has been rewarded with this high quality production, and I look forward to seeing "Marat/Sade" next month. If the success of "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" is repeated, perhaps the creation of a new auditorium within the Olivier Theatre will be something we see again in the future.

    (Mike Hatton)

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