caucasian chalk circle

Review: The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Rose Theatre

Review: The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Rose Theatre

Innovative adaptation of this rarely staged play.


The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a rarely staged play by the famous German playwright Bertolt Brecht. It’s been now brought to life by Christopher Haydon at the Rose Theatre in Kingston – and provides an excellent canvas for his directorial talents and some fantastic stagecrafts, as well as an explanation for why it remains rather unpopular. 

We start in a modern-day immigration camp – but do not get too attached to the characters, as we soon move towards the actual substance of this show, a play-within-a-play. Grusha, a maid, rescues a baby left behind by his mother when she and his father, the governor, flee for their lives from a city attacked by an enemy. Grusha decides to raise the boy and risks her life to rescue him from many troubles – until the angry mother wants her son back. 

There are so many things that work. The acting is extraordinary. The cast of nine uses a mosaic of techniques, from method to Brechtian acting as they face the gargantuan task of portraying 50-odd characters. Carrie Hope Fletcher is outstanding as Grusha and shines especially bright when sharing the stage with Jonathan Slinger (Azdak, the judge who attempts to determine who should keep the child) whose comedic timing and dynamic personality provide a backdrop for her emotional range. 

Stage design works wonders when at its most dynamic. Beautifully thought-through scenes of chase, creative use of metal bunk beds that dub as a carriage, a bridge and a couple of other things, stunning lighting illuminating the entire stage as a fire when the country is being attacked by the enemy are all both visually impressive and create some much-needed tension.   

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is almost always staged with songs intertwined with the dialogues, and this version is no exception. Composed by Michael Henry and sung mostly by the narrator – Singer (Zoe West), they range from “why is it here” to “that’s borderline genius.” The spirit of Kurt Weill – Brecht’s long-time collaborator, nowadays famous mostly for “Mack the Knife” but with heritage far more diverse and important – lingers on the entire score, and particularly on the duets Singer performs with Grusha. Probably no need to mention but Carrie Hope Fletcher obviously has a stunning voice.  

On the downside, there seemed to be a general consensus that the show was far too long. There’s also not much Brecht within Brecht. Haydon forewent traditional banners, the actors are kept off-stage when not performing, the suspense of disbelief is going strong, the fourth wall is rarely broken and the vast majority of the acting is done using traditional methods spiced up with some satire rather than Brechtian. This is not a bad thing necessarily, but in the case of Caucasian Chalk Circle, it only serves to emphasise the fact that the story is well, not very compelling. It is written to achieve the Verfremdungseffekt – usually translated as the alienation effect, wherein the audience is supposed to be somewhat estranged from the emotional aspects of the play and in turn be forced to ponder upon the social change possible through theatre. That’s Brecht’s theory. Haydon reimagines it to achieve a more palatable, traditional story and then comes back to certain Brechtian techniques, especially via his takes on Azdak as a Brechtian clown. There’s also a lot of slapstick and satire – including a literal pie in the face – and the end result is confusing.  

The original play starts with a prologue that is often omitted on stage. This time it was replaced with a modern setting in an immigrant camp. The script also has modern references galore, from “build back better” to a “strategic retreat.” They do get laughs from the audience but don’t really work towards building some frame of reference that would enliven the plot. This story screams for politics and is not getting any.  

Rose Theatre, until 22 October

Image: Nickcolia King-N’da, Carrie Hope Fletcher and Bridgitta Roy in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Photo by Iona Firouzabadi