Bertolt Brecht was never keen on proscenium arch theatre with actors neatly arranged on a distant stage. Call him epic or anti-realist, but either way he was a disrupter with purpose.
The audience – or ‘participants’ – have to work hard. But it’s worth it for a storyline going back 600 years which still speaks to contemporary moral dilemmas.
The chalk circle represents a boundary where the truth of a dispute may be tested and revealed. Don’t cross the line!
We start in a sombre mood. “All I have left is lost,” says one, “the orchard is destroyed,” says another and a voice cries out “we want our valley in the Caucasus back”. Two doctors in white gowns carry a pressure gauge.
But take an anxious young woman, Garusha, who wants to save an abandoned baby from war and invasion. There are refugees fleeing their land and home. The weak cannot run. It sounds very modern. Today it could be Armenia or Georgia. It could be Palestine.
Garusha has carried and protected the baby as she crossed the Caucasus mountains with meagre supplies. She loves the baby. Time passes, things settle down. But it turns out this is the child of the former governor and his wife. Now they want their baby back. That’s a moral dilemma worthy of a judgement of Solomon! A circle of chalk is drawn and the baby is placed in the middle to see who it picks as mum. It’s not exactly a modern technique for adoption.
The German and Soviet commanders argue. One person suggests taking refuge in the hills. Another wants to dynamite the rocks. Others say the chalk is old. Everyone is arguing. “Take them to the courtyard,” says a fierce voice. That sounds like the final solution.
The action in the play is cleverly subtitled on a white board to underline scene changes or drama: “The scene with a child”, “The scene where the people put on a show…”
In Tbilisi they are packing their possessions. There are fights in town. Men and women are kissing goodbye. The city is in chaos. A crying women with wild ragged hair says “look out!” That is the governor’s head. A vegetable hangs from the ceiling. There is no milk for the baby.
People search for shelter but the caravanserai is empty. There are no guests there.
Now it is: “The scene where dogs are hunting.”
A helpless mother hears Aretha Franklin singing “I say a little prayer for you”.
One voice from the cast says: “The scene where the mother wants her child back.”
“It is the real author who will be the judge of all this,” says another.
Between them the cast of nine actors also devised the choreography and design. So the women and men had blackened circles etched around their eyes.
This two-act drama also finds space for a play within a play. So we took the opportunity to speak to the director, Joanna Rosenfeld, who has a strong record in complex theatre including the award-winning ‘Polished Scar’ in the 2018 Fringe.
So what drew her to Brecht? She describes herself as “a political thinker” who was “excited to take on a play that looks at the effect of war.” She saw Chalk Circle as being relentless in its analysis. In particular, she was fascinated by what the play reveals about “the effect on civilians and landscape and the earth” and how it poses questions about “ownership, stewardship, responsibility and accountability.”
In that sense, she saw the play as addressing important issues of “gender, power, war… and the current situation of mania.” Joanna suggests that theatre can provide a “space to discuss these issues” in ways not so available elsewhere. For example, “a trans person in the arts is a really big thing – and how we label each other and how that label effects each human being – it’s an important thing to look at.”
In her work, she strives to cast “gender blind” and that is clear in her line-up for this play which examined the roles people take on as “we all have masculine and feminine elements.”
Back on stage, Richard Marris (from the Shadow Triggers group) phrased tangled electric chords of love, danger or death on guitar to accentuate the tension. Meanwhile, Erin Burbridge was complementing the stage mood with subtle lights and sounds appropriate to the action. The nine-strong cast devised the choreography and set design.
This performance of Chalk Circle by Lantern Theatre was devised by their ACT Diploma year group 2. We’ll be back for more in 2024!