Let’s start with a confession. I wasn’t a fan of Brecht when I was studying for my German degree and never in a million years thought I would revisit. Well, it’s only been 35 years and the impetus was the recent production at the Lyceum in Edinburgh. I started going to the theatre regularly a couple of years ago, when I branched out from the Book Festival and added the Edinburgh Fringe to my itinerary. Unsurprisingly I head to anything with German Literature connections and have thus far been treated to Kleist’s Penthesilea (completely bonkers, but it’s amazing what can be achieved in a tiny hotel room with a humungous piece of paper), Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther (in German, with English subtitles) presented as a soliloquy, actor staring for long periods of time at a balloon; Hesse’s Siddhartha (Italian opera, with English subtitles), given full-scale West End musical treatment. As a result, I was looking forward to Brecht’s play, even though no mark remained from my multiple readings many moons ago.
First though I decided to reread. It didn’t take long for my old boredoms to resurface. The commmunist/socialist arguments in the prologue when land is confiscated to form an agricultural commune because the land will be better cared for that way are yawnswothy because historical hindsight shows how that didn’t pan out. The principle is illustrated in the remaining scenes during a time of revolution and civil war when the governor’s abandoned child is saved from certain death by the selfless actions of a servant girl. The revolution fails, however, and two year’s later the child’s mother tries to reclaim the child. Who is the real mother? That is for judge Azdak to decide ….
This is a dramatic story of epic proportions. How do you go about staging events that span two years? Brecht resolves this through the use of a narrator to explain background and events between scenes. Reading the play this amounts to tell not show and is, even if this is acknowledged as one of the greatest 20th century plays, boring.
But then the Causcasian Chalk Circle is not meant to be read. The story is meant to be told, the events are meant to be watched and the narrator, in the form of a funky hair-cut flicking, electric guitar wielding, singing superstar is a transformative power. The first riffs rang out, the audience woke up and for the next two-and-a-half hours never blinked!
The narrator is ably “supported” by a large cast of actor musicians, many of whom take on multiple roles in both genders as the play has an even larger number of characters. But if the narrator is the superstar, the puppeteer is the megastar. During the course of events, little Michael, the child abandoned in favour of his mother’s dresses (!), grows from a babe in arms to a mischievous toddler. This transition is effected by a series of puppets, manipulated by a man dressed in black, who soon becomes invisible. The child becomes surprisingly real and the bond between him and his “adoptive” mother tangible. The shock at the causcasian chalk circle trial, when the child really could have been ripped in two, was palpable and (my) tears were shed when justice was done.
This was a highlight performance for me. The modern dress emphasising the continued relevance of the issues raised. (The chaos of war, the plight of refugees ..,) I’ll be keeping Brecht’s text to reread and relive it. The run at the Lyceum ends this Saturday (14th March). If you’re in Edinburgh or the vicinity and have the chance of a ticket, take it. Not to be missed.