By Bertolt Brecht, translated by Alistair Beaton
Directed by Nancy Meckler
Company: Shared Experience
Venue: Richmond Theatre
Date: Wednesday 21st October 2009
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. This wasn’t advertised as a schools matinee but that’s effectively what it was. The vast majority of the audience, at least in the stalls, were teenagers. This made the audience unbalanced and at times I felt completely out of touch with most of the people around me, which didn’t help me to feel involved with the production. For example, there’s a short scene where a senior soldier tells off a junior soldier because although he restrained and beat up the husband while the senior man raped the wife, he clearly didn’t enjoy it as a good soldier should. The kids screamed with laughter at every use of the word ‘dickhead’, they gasped and squirmed when the soldier very coarsely mentioned raping the wife, but the humour about the standards of the common soldier, which we found funny, evidently passed them by. They continued to laugh at every sexual innuendo, verbal or physical, and while I found some of it very funny myself I also felt at times that I was at a pantomime with a lot of little kids.
With all these distractions it took till nearly the end of the first half before I fully engaged with the story. The first section, the prologue, was very good, with an official type talking to villagers returning to their war-ravaged land, and trying to persuade them that the land should be given to those who could make the best use of it. Only in this case, he’s referring to consolidation of the small subsistence plots into big enough farms for the agri-businesses to move in and make a killing. The villagers aren’t sure what choice to make, so they decide to put on a play which deals with all of the issues being debated, and which will help them come to a conclusion. It’s called The Chalk Circle, and since they’re in the Caucasus, it becomes The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
The story then unfolds of a rich and important man, who has a wife and a baby son. He lives in a country which is at war, and seems to have been at war for a very long time, but he’s doing very nicely for himself all the same. One Easter Sunday, some rebels rebel, he’s captured and killed, and his widow runs for her life, leaving their baby son Michael behind. Actually, the widow had to be carried away kicking and screaming because she couldn’t bring along five large suitcases full of fancy clothes. She spent so much time trying to get her servants to pack properly, she nearly got caught herself. It’s clear where her priorities lie, and it’s not with the baby.
Realising that the rebels will want to kill the baby as well, all the other servants run off, leaving Grisha to look after him. They’ve told her to go as well, and abandon the baby, but she can’t. Eventually, when the soldiers arrive, and it’s clear the baby will be killed if it’s found, she runs off, taking little Michael with her. The rest of the first half is the story of how she evades capture, including the brutal bashing in of the rapist soldier’s head (she’s vicious when she’s protecting the baby), and an arranged marriage with a man from the next valley along from her brother. This poor chap is on his death bed when the extremely drunk Welsh priest ties the knot, and the wedding party is busily turning into funeral wake when news comes that the war is over, and that they won’t be taking away any more of the young men to be soldiers. You’ve never seen a dead man recover so fast. Oops. Now Grisha’s married to one man, in love with another (a soldier wooed and won her before the trouble broke out), and bringing up a baby that’s neither hers nor either of theirs.
So ended the first half. I started to enjoy myself from the wedding scene onward – the Welsh priest was such joy to watch – even though I’d spent most of the first half wondering if I should just cut my losses and go for a coffee while Steve finished the play for both of us. Talking it over with him afterwards, we decided it was mainly the audience that gave us the difficulties, and given that things improved in the second half that may well be true. The youngsters certainly seemed to have calmed down a lot, though we noticed a lot of gaps in the stalls where older audience members had been sitting. The story picked up again, too, though in a strange way. We followed Grisha and Michael a bit further, with Michael being played by a lovely little dark-skinned puppet – an example of colour-blind casting even in the puppetry department. We saw how unpleasant Grisha’s husband was (squeals from the youngsters as a man, naked but for a pair of underpants took to the stage), then she met her soldier again across the river, and just as she’s trying to reassure him that the baby isn’t hers, she has to claim it is to stop the soldiers taking it. But they do, nevertheless.
Now the play switches back to that Easter Sunday two years ago when the rebels struck and Grisha had to take Michael away. Only this time, we’re going to hear how one man became their judge. He’s a local scoundrel, an intellectual who can’t be bothered doing a proper job so he poaches rabbits and suchlike instead. He helps the Grand Duke to escape, mainly because he didn’t like the policeman he could have handed him over to. When he’s brought in for poaching, he makes an impassioned speech to the soldiers, assuming this is a popular uprising on behalf of the working man. Turns out it was actually a coup by the fat prince (yes, that’s what it says in the program) to take power, and now he wants to get his son or nephew voted in as the new judge. The soldiers, for all he paid them to kill the revolting peasants, reckon he’s only giving them a vote because he’s not yet securely in power. So they decide to take advantage of the situation and hold auditions for the post of judge. The scoundrel plays the part of the Grand Duke for the purposes of a mock trial, and his impersonation is so good it gets all the soldiers laughing (and us). He then speaks in the Grand Duke’s defence, making all the political points Brecht wanted – the aristocracy don’t take any of the risks themselves, they send other people’s sons off to fight while making fat profits from their military contracts, they don’t even supply a lot of the equipment they’re being paid for, etc., etc., all too depressingly familiar from current events. The soldiers boot out the fat prince’s relative, and elect the scoundrel instead; at least when he takes bribes from the rich he helps the poor with the money and his judicial decisions.
But two years go by, and now the war is over the Grand Duke and Michael’s mother are both returning to claim what’s theirs. There’s a long wrangle over who should have the baby, with two lawyers arguing on the biological mother’s side. One of them lays on the sentiment with a trowel, only to be completely undercut by the other one pointing out that she needs Michael as his father’s son and heir to allow her to gain control of her dead husband’s money and land. Finally the judge opts for the chalk circle test. A chalk circle is drawn on the ground, the puppet is put in the middle with each ‘mother’ holding a hand, and the winner is the one who can pull the baby out of the circle. They have two goes at it, as Grisha complains that she didn’t have a proper grip the first time, but both times she lets the child go so as not to hurt him. I sobbed. (The audience laughed.) Naturally the judge awarded Grisha custody of Michael, and for good measure, ‘mistakenly’ authorises her divorce from her husband, so that she can marry her soldier (instead of allowing an old couple to divorce, who been out of love with each other since they met). I would have sobbed some more, but I’d run out of tissue and the young folk were groaning and ‘eugh’ing at the loving reunion between Grisha and her true love.
So, with a final moral from the judge, who’d returned to being the singing narrator again, about how everything should be given to those who can look after it best, including the land, we were done. Thankfully.
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me