The latest production from acclaimed theatre company Lazarus is The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Bertolt Brecht’s classic translated by Frank McGuinness. Adapted and directed by Ricky Dukes, this production, at the Brockley Jack in South London, is performed straight through without an interval, and it is an exhilarating experience. Entering the auditorium, we are offered a biscuit – I have to admit this won me over straight away, and the play itself confirmed me in my good opinion.
The chalk circle of the title refers to a Chinese folk tale or legend, similar to the Judao-Christian story of King Solomon, in which two women both claim that a baby is theirs and have to undergo a test to determine which the child belongs to. Brecht’s tale, set just after the Second World War, begins with a Prologue, often omitted from stage productions but included here, in which members of two communes in the Soviet Union argue about who is to own and manage an area of land formerly used by the Nazis. Told to members of both communes by a singer, the main tale begins, in which a young woman, Grusha, sympathetically portrayed by Ashleigh Cordery, saves a baby that has been left behind after her town’s inhabitants have fled owing to a siege. The child happens to be the son of the mayor, and is in danger of being killed: the story is how Grusha continues to protect the child as she wanders the countryside, at great risk to herself.
With strong supporting performances from a versatile cast, most of whom play several different characters, the play zips by; there is always plenty going on, and the work is laced with Brecht’s satirical humour. Despite a complicated plot and a wide variety of characters, the production helped to make everything clear. The play is touching, too, and makes a serious point underneath the humour. I was incredibly impressed with this production of a fascinating play.