Review: Caucasian Chalk Circle

The talented cast and director should lynch the moron who lumbered them with such a difficult play.

ADC Brecht Chalk Circle Onyett Theatre

Caucasian Chalk Circle, Dir: Lydia Onyett 17th-21st November, ADC Theatre.


When I first saw that the fresher’s play was to be ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle’ I did not know whether to be apprehensive or excited. The play is extremely difficult and is frequently done badly by even the most experienced theatre companies, but on the other hand does have huge potential.

For those reader’s who don’t know, Bertolt Brecht is a bit of a big dick in the history of 20th century theatre, actually he pretty much redefined the meaning of the term. To summarise very crudely; Brecht developed a form of theatre that would appeal to your average, poorly educated, Joe Bloggs type bloke or for the Marxists out there ‘the proletariat.’ He believed his form of theatre would educate the proletariat, inspire a communist revolution in Europe and on top of all that be just as entertaining for them as the things that the proletariat actually wanted to watch in the 1920’s like half naked women doing the ‘can can,’ boxing, cabaret and music hall comedy. This type of theatre Brecht came up with can be crudely described as a political pantomime. His plays were supposed to be hilariously funny punctuated by sudden moments of collective realisation like: “Oh shit that’s so profound … he’s right we do need a revolution!” Unfortunately it hasn’t really caught on yet and the pages of ‘OK,’ ‘Hello’ and ‘The Sun’ have yet to see the name of Bertolt Brecht grace their pages but for those of us who have studied the guy – he nevertheless remains a bit of a legend. 

The difficulty with Brecht is that while some directors pull off this combination of belly aching comedy and life changing political realisation others produce something so boring its only achievement is to provide a profound argument for why life is not worth living. Lydia Onyett’s production successfully demonstrated both of these extremes. I have never sat in a production so varied in its quality. There were moments handled with real skill, comic dexterity and an excellent understanding of the text and what it demands interspersed with what I can only describe as exceptionally dull, misunderstood Brecht. After laughing out loud at Amrou Al Kadhi’s opening interpretation of ‘The Governor’ I was then forced to wait nearly an hour for the next laugh while lines of comic genius were played with a dull severity, I was, to say the least, feeling a little hard done by.

Yet despite the mind numbingly dull moments this play was not overall a bad one. The cast are clearly all very talented. In fact there were some really outstanding performances; Rob Willoughby in particular held the play together in the role of the ‘singer,’ who did not actually sing but spoke in such sonorous tones, it was the next best thing. Amrou Al Kadhi and Nahuel Telleria put in excellent performances in most of their roles even if some fell a little short. Al Kadhi and Telleria gave us moments of real brilliance and gripped us with uncontrollable laughter at some really wonderful characterisations. Georgia Ritter also deserves recognition for her swashbuckling interpretation of ‘Azdak,’ which with a little more attention would also have demonstrated real brilliance.
Yet while the audience were treated to isolated scenes that were nothing less than Brechtian Viagra unfortunately when the performance went up, it just didn’t stay up and the audience had to watch Brecht’s genius crash and burn while it waited for the next flash of brilliance.  This inconsistent quality was largely due to a misplaced assumption on the part of the director that ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ is a political tragedy with comic moments as opposed to a political comedy with serious moments. This was demonstrated by the fact that the bits played for comedy invariably worked and the bits played for tragedy invariably flopped. Brecht only works if the director is sparing and selective with the tragedy, there should be a sense of fun for all but a few, very carefully chosen moments, otherwise, Brecht is boring.

Having said all that, I cannot emphasise enough how impressed I was with how well the cast and the director managed such a difficult play. The very fact that just under half of it was of a really high standard is in itself a huge achievement in this case, and as I have said some of it was really brilliant. I have no doubt that if this cast had been given a play that did not require such specific skill and knowledge they could have produced something outstanding.

I really do feel that it is quite unfair that this play was thrust upon Lydia Onyett when it is quite clearly one that requires her to have studied Brecht to a fair depth, something that is quite clearly unlikely in the case of the majority of directors in Cambridge. Whoever these morons are that choose the fresher’s mainshow, they shoulder any blame for the failings of this very difficult play that does injustice to what is quite clearly a very talented cast and (if the good bits are anything to go by) a very talented director. If the cast of ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ want to form a lynch mob and string up the moron in the ADC Committee that chose this play, I’m right behind them.