first night

The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Dan Gosselin experiences some epic theatre with Ethrael Theatre Company's production of 'The Caucasian Chalk Circle'


It has been a surprisingly long time since Brecht has graced The Assembly Rooms stage, and I often think it is a great shame we do not see more of his work in Durham. It is understandable why it is avoided, Brecht’s strong anti-realist style or ‘epic theatre’ is never a task to be taken upon lightly, the effect of alienating an audience and the strong political overtones of his work can often make the audience feel lost and isolated. This is not the case with Ethrael Theatre’s latest offering.


In Caucasian Chalk Circle, as with some of Brecht’s most famous plays, he ‘frames’ the show around the Second World War and after the prologue we enter the play within a play, the parable of the circle of chalk. The story of the poor girl who rescues a child abandoned by the fleeing aristocracy and raises her as her own, only to have the aristocracy attempt claim the child back upon their return.


From the offset we were made aware of the commitment to the Brecht-ian style, I walked into the theatre and sat and had a conversation with the cast, who gradually make their way to the stage as the lights slowly fade into the play itself. I must credit Leo Mylonadis (director) and Sam McKay (Creative Consultant, or “Brecht-spert” as the programme says) for their dedication to the style, the lighting and staging work incredibly in distancing the audience from the show, and the ever-visual cast (and lighting bars) act as constant reminders of the theatre we are in and the play we are watching. Lighting does suffer a little at points from a few black spots on the stage but overall the use of angles and colour is incredibly effective throughout. The simple use of props and even puppetry is effective throughout and producers Anna Jeary and Lydia Feerick should be commended on sourcing or creating all manner of items for a show, and even an incredible puppet three year old.


However, by far my favourite part of the design was the use of chalk drawings throughout, on both the stage and the black wall. Throughout the play chalk is used to create a backdrop as we learn more about the town in which we are and as the story unfolds this extends into chalk roads and chalk rooms on the stage floor. This hand drawn theme really adds a nice creative touch to the production and assists the audience in following the action on stage. In many ways I wanted to see the cast make more of this, I feel as if the use of small indicators could be used to map us through our journey around this town and indicate where the leads were. Also, the cast should be careful not to out-step the chalk boundaries they have set for themselves. All in all, the simplicity and uniqueness of this idea made it even more striking and I thoroughly enjoyed being able to notice the quirky little details of the backdrop itself (even the poor person being abducted by a UFO…).


The show requires an ensemble of performers who must have the ability to perform multiple roles (seventy-six in total), which can be a challenge in Brecht where each is given little depth. It was noticeable at times that some of the cast were a little stronger at this aspect than others, however I feel it was good performance overall. One issue was the accents, which varied in quality and were often not kept up by performers, clearly used as a device to distinguish characters I feel some may have done better in choosing accents where we are less likely to lose lines through diction.


Many dealt with the larger-than-life caricatures of the aristocracy incredibly well and the performance of Ellie Bowness, particularly as Natella Abashvilli, in this area must be commended. Alongside this Harvey Comerford makes an extremely convincing Azdak and his well paced dialogue makes for an incredibly enjoyable performance.


Pegah Moradi as Grusha has one of the hardest jobs of leading the story, treading line between being engaging whilst working to ensure the audience does not become overly emotionally attached. In many ways, given that she is the most relatable character in the play, with the most real emotions, it is hard not to feel slightly attached to her and I thought Pegah pulled off this balancing act very well, you were rooting for her at the end, but I wasn’t going to be reaching for the Kleenex anytime soon – Brecht to a tee.


My one gripe with the ensemble movement is that so much of it takes place towards the back of the Assembly Rooms stage. At times we did see the action move onto the apron but I would have liked to see more pulled forward as I often felt like there was too much dead space between me and the action.


It would, of course, be remiss not to mention the music of the show. Rob Collins has done in incredible job in his dual role as the singer, where he assisting the audience in following the storyline, and composer of the show. The music composed for the piece is wonderfully fitting and the style matches the action on stage superbly, whilst I thought there were some songs that stood out over others I thought the band and Rob really added to the production and the style. The ensemble did well in performing these pieces, however sometimes we lost dialogue under the music or singing due to diction.


Brecht is hard to pull off, and Caucasian Chalk Circle pulls off all aspects incredibly well, and I would expect this show will only get stronger throughout its run. Mylonadis and his team have managed to produce both and enjoyable and thought-provoking piece of theatre and have, in my opinion, managed to make Brecht accessible and cohesive. I suggest that if you want to see something a little different that challenges your conception of theatre you give Caucasian Chalk Circle a try, after all “terrible is the temptation to do good”.

27 February 2015

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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