The Caucasian Chalk Circle – October 2009

3/10

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

Mine – November 2008

6/10

By Polly Teale

Directed by Polly Teale

Shared Experience

Minerva Theatre

Saturday 8th November 2008

This is one of those plays that probably only a woman could write. It’s very focused on motherhood, and the awkward relationships between not only mothers and daughters, but also a birth mother and an adoptive one. It’s quite nice, after a lot of Shakespeare, to see a play about the one thing he just didn’t do – mothers and daughters.

The set was interesting. The back wall comprised a series of sliding panels, all silvery-grey, which served as a projection screen as well as various doors. There was another door to the far left, and the only furniture at the start was a doll’s house about three or four feet high to our left, and a modern chair and table to our right. There were other chairs brought on as needed, and the second half started with lots of boxes on the stage and the furniture overturned, which the cast sorted out in the early stages, removing the boxes and righting the furniture. They also started packing up the doll’s house before moving it back from our right to its original position.

The back panels had an image of the lighted windows of a high rise apartment block projected onto them early on, to set the scene. The image also reminded me of DNA results, the little blobs that descend down the page. These were across the way, but even so the connection was there for me, and I was reminded of it occasionally during the play. Otherwise, the screen was mainly used for images of a young girl, at play or whatever, to add an extra layer to the action or between the scenes.

We also saw a young girl wandering about (Sophie Stone) in a white dress, and carrying a doll or teddy. She played with the doll’s house, and even talked with the woman (Katy Stephens). The woman was a high-powered business type who seemed to be organising some event or project, almost impervious to outside concerns. Her partner (Alistair Petrie) tells her they’ve got an appointment somewhere the next day, and she starts planning some major changes, cancelling work, etc. It turns out that a young baby, whose mother is a drug addict, is available for them to foster, and if the mother drops out of rehab they’ll be able to keep her. The play follows the process of the handover and the woman’s need to keep a connection going with the birth mother, which her partner finds disturbingly obsessive. The woman goes as far as taking the baby to the birth mother, Rose (Lorraine Stanley) while she’s actually on the job (touting for customers), and the final resolution comes out of that episode.

I found it a moving play, though not in the early stages when the scenes were a bit too choppy and clinical to engage me emotionally. It was in the woman’s relationships with her own family, a sister (Clare Lawrence Moody) and mother (Marion Bailey) that the play came alive, while her insistent desire to find Rose after she’d left rehab was both disturbing and understandable. Disturbing because of the areas of life she and we had to look at – the drug taking, sexual abuse and prostitution – and understandable because she instinctively knew that the baby was going to need that connection to her birth mother some day, and that that relationship had to be acknowledged as part of her life for her to be happy and at peace. Or that’s how I saw it anyway.

I realised early on that the girl in the white dress could be a number of things. She could be the woman herself as a child, or the ideal child that she was fantasising about, but on the whole I think she represented the spirit of the child that the baby would grow up to be. The woman had a number of conversations with her, as well as having dreams which included her, such as playing a game of hide and seek which ended up with the girl hiding in the doll’s house, and then being sealed up in it (the start of the second half). In fact, the whole play had a kind of dreamy quality to it, with the action shifting from ‘reality’ to the imagination all the time, and often these levels were going on simultaneously. On one occasion Rose appeared, and took the baby from the woman, carrying her over to the sister when she arrived, then walking off at the back. I assume that was symbolic, though I’ve no idea of what.

The sister was the one who had children of her own, and who felt less valuable because she didn’t have an important career. But unlike the woman, she did have experience in bringing up children, which the woman thought was the most important thing. Clare Lawrence Moody also played Katya, the home help, who added a touch of humour to proceedings with her no-nonsense approach to child rearing. The mother was the controlling sort, and the woman had felt under tremendous pressure to make something of her life. Now she wanted a child, and didn’t want her mother watching her every move and criticising her. The mother certainly wanted to be involved, even to the extent of waiting outside their house in her car for hours, trying to get the woman on the phone.

The partner is the only representative of the male half of the world’s population, and it’s fair to say that he doesn’t get much of a look in. He does have some good arguments, and a short piece about how he feels, but he’s mainly there to show us the completely rational point of view, and this play makes it clear that there’s more to life than that. There’s a different perspective, a sense of the connections between people, which don’t always operate in a logical, rational way. The woman feels this, and responds to it as best she can, and I could relate to that, while his pleasure that Rose has left rehab, so that they can keep the baby, is quite repulsive; even though it’s understandable, it was played to be unsympathetic. The playing of Rose was important in this respect. We can see what kind of life she leads, and yet she has that connection with her baby, and for a while she seems to want to change her life to be able to keep that connection going. I couldn’t judge her, as she was having a tough time just living.

The play also looks at the way so many busy working women are trying to fit babies into their lives, and aren’t always able to adjust. This woman has a lifestyle that’s beyond hectic, yet she wants a child as well. We see her trying to ignore the baby while trying to get her work done, and having difficulty knowing what to do when the baby won’t stop crying. This sounds like typical drama fodder, but there’s a sense that something isn’t right, that the woman is missing something. Katy Stephens started off playing her very calm, almost too calm and controlled, but as we see her with her mother and sister, we find out more about her emotional life, and Katy is able to express more of the power we saw on stage during the Histories.

It’s a challenging piece, and not to everyone’s taste, I’m sure, but I enjoyed it, and never felt bored, though as I say it did take some time for me to feel involved. I liked the use of imagery, and the performances were all fine. We applauded for quite some time after the cast had gone, but they didn’t come back for another bow, sadly. Steve reckoned there was some kind of supporters’ do that night, so they had to be quick.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Kindertransport – March 2007

8/10

By: Diane Samuels

Directed by: Polly Teale

Company: Shared Experience

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 2nd March 2007

This was a very moving play, with a surprising amount of humour. It’s based on the experiences of the Jewish children who were sent away from Germany just before WWII, to England, many of whom never saw their families again. This play focuses on one child, Eva, who, at nine years old is sent away to England by her parents. She is taken in by a family in Manchester, grows up there, and eventually rejects her original family to maintain her Englishness. We see the story both in the past, reliving Eva’s journey and experiences, and also in the present, as Evelyn (her new name) tries to keep her previous life a secret from her teenage daughter. Her daughter is persistent, however, and with the help of her grandmother, the woman who took Eva in all those years ago, a truth of a sort emerges. Throughout all of this, there is the figure of the Ratcatcher, as in the Pied Piper, a story told to Eva as a child, and which should serve as a dire warning never to tell children scary stories. Eva is terrified of this figure when it’s just a story, but when it takes on flesh and blood through Nazi persecution, her terror is multiplied, and affects her life and the way she relates to others profoundly. Hence her daughter’s insistence on knowing about her mother’s past – she knows there’s something missing, and she’s appalled that her mother could wilfully keep it from her, when it’s part of who she is as well. Of course, to her mother it represents all her fears, so she doesn’t want to face it, but through this confrontation, she seems to come to a gradual acceptance of her past, even if it’s not all forgiven and forgotten.

The whole production of this play was excellent. All the performances were perfect, and the interweaving of the stories and the time elements was masterful. We were shown so much about human suffering, and courage and compassion, that I was moved to tears. I wasn’t sure about the Ratcatcher at first – he just seemed to collapse onto the stage and crawl around for a while, but eventually the symbolism took hold, and Evelyn’s final identification of the Ratcatcher with her mother was very powerful. I increasingly saw the Ratcatcher as more of a victim than a figure of terror, as the character’s make up and behaviour became more tortured. And I particularly liked the way I could feel sympathy for the various points of view and the choices which had been made, without judging or supporting any specific person. All the women were tremendously strong characters, and showed great courage in the face of their difficulties. It was also nice to see a genuinely kind mother figure for once, in the shape of the Mancunian woman who takes Eva in and supports her with an amazing degree of understanding throughout her life in England.

The set was very evocative. It was a large attic space, with lots of “storage solutions” as they’re called nowadays – several wardrobes, chests of drawers, trunks and boxes lined the space, and various items of bric-a-brac were scattered around or piled in a corner. There was also a ladder resting on a cam ceiling, which was used to get Eva on and off her ship to England. Wardrobe doors doubled as room doors, and Eva did a fair bit of climbing over the furniture and boxes – good for showing us the scene settings, and also evoking the natural way children behave.

The one man in the cast played several parts. Apart from the Ratcatcher, he was also a German official on the train taking the children to the boat, who stole Eva’s money, but let her keep her mouth-organ, as well as giving her a sweetie – he thought he was being so good! He returned as a postman who delivers Eva’s Ratcatcher book from her mother, when they could still get post through, and who jokes with her about the Nazi salute. And he’s also an unpleasant railway guard who intimidates Eva when she’s waiting for her parents to arrive – they almost made it, but war broke out a few days too soon.

Eva’s rejection of her natural mother after the war was a very moving scene. I could see both points of view – her mother has never stopped loving her, and still sees Eva as her daughter, with the other mother just a temporary relationship, as if Eva had simply been a lodger. Eva/Evelyn, on the other hand, has built a life for herself, has been through untold suffering, trying to get her parents the papers they need to get out of Germany and join her, and now she’s not the little girl who left her mother before the war. Even then, her mother had been pushing her to do things for herself, and to stand on her own feet. Now she’s doing it, and both of them are suffering.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Orestes – September 2006

Experience: 6/10

By Helen Edmunson, from the play by Euripedes

Directed by Nancy Meckler

Company: Shared Experience

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date Friday 15th September 2006

This is an adaptation of the Orestes by Euripides, done by Helen Edmundson. Set in a lavish bedroom, with gold sheets on the bed and pairs of gold shoes hanging on the door, I found it was an interesting production which raised some good questions about the reasons people have for killing each other, without trying to come to any specific resolution to answer them all. I like this type of theatre.

The performances were excellent. Electra (Mairead McKinley) was the powerhouse of the piece. She was the one who had seen their father killed in his bath, but was unable to take revenge until Orestes’ return. She is an odd combination of sanity and obsession, not helped by Helen’s cruel remarks about her (relative) ugliness and lack of children. She conveys all the suffering which can lead to a lust for revenge, together with the intelligence and cunning that comes from waiting a long time to get that revenge. She it is who hits on the idea of killing Helen, to pay back Menelaus for daring to take the throne from her and her brother, the rightful heirs (or matricides, as the mob outside the palace prefer to call them). She has more loose screws than B&Q, yet she’s still saner than her brother, whose final descent into total insanity horrifies even her, although that’s partly because he’s just buggered up their one chance to escape the mob. She is also able to argue convincingly against Tyndareos, their grandfather (yes, it’s another Greek dysfunctional family, folks), who is practically baying for their blood, though in slightly more civil terms than the mob outside. His focus is the law – they have killed their mother (his daughter), so they must die. He’s not so hot on why the law didn’t crack down on Clytemnestra and her lover when they killed Pops, but that’s politicians for you. A lovely performance from Jeffrey Kissoon.

Menelaus (Tim Chipping) is wonderfully portrayed as a weak, indecisive type, who’s nevertheless prepared to take advantage of his niece and nephew’s plight to gain political clout for himself. After depleting the forces of wherever he ruled before the Trojan War, he’s now looking for a new country to rule, and here’s a place that’s just lost its rulers, and about to execute their heirs/killers, and hey, he just happens to be family, so why not offer to step into the breach? Do not allow this man to make you a cup of tea; if you’ve got anything he wants, it’ll be laced with something deadly. Despite this, Menelaus comes across as one of the nicer people to begin with – bit softer, more caring and understanding, willing to help the besieged couple. Not that he’s prepared to carry through with it, and in the end, he loses more than he’d bargained for.

Orestes seems to be under his sister’s thumb in many ways, and yet she looks to him for leadership, strength and love. It’s that odd kind of relationship where it can be difficult at times to tell who’s leading and who’s following. He’s plainly more affected by their killing spree than she is – she’s wanted the revenge all along, but he’s suffering the guilt, and it’s after killing Helen that the guilt drives him to lose it completely. Alex Robertson judged his performance in this role very nicely. There’s an intriguing moment as they are heading down the suicide route, where they kiss and look like they’re tempted to make love. I don’t think this implied any pre-existing sexual relationship between them, although as this is based on Greek drama, I could be completely wrong. I just saw it as a last despairing expression of love between them, especially as Electra had been so hurt by Helen’s complete refutation of her womanhood. Still a virgin, this could be her only chance.

Helen arrives in the palace ahead of Menelaus. She’s brought their baby, who is tended to by a slave woman. Helen, though beautiful, comes across as a real bitch. Admittedly, she’s talking to the pair who killed her sister, so you have to make some allowances, but she’s so full of herself, being part-God as she claims (and there’s a cock-and-swan story, if ever I heard one!), that she’s bound to cause trouble wherever she goes. Still, she reminds us of the massive impact of the Trojan war on this world, equivalent to the First World War in more recent times, where so many died for so little reason. And those deaths are the trigger for all that happens afterwards. There are red figures lurking at the back of the stage – dummies – and for me they mainly represented the many dead on all sides because of one beautiful woman and her fatal choice. It’s a powerful confrontation, Helen and Electra, and Claire Onyemere as Helen more than holds her own. The slave woman, played by Claire Prempeh, has little to do but nurse the baby and shrink into the background, and I would have liked to have heard more from her. She does have a short conversation with Electra later, which demonstrates that, for all her reasons to suffer, she’s much more at peace than any other character in the play.

Both brother and sister rely heavily on an alleged oracular injunction to justify their actions, and it’s here that the play’s main interest lies. Is it OK to kill people because ‘God’ tells you to, or not? This, despite ‘God’ having spent centuries passing on the message that killing is not a good idea. In many languages! Through many wise people! I am firmly in the ‘killing is not a good idea’ camp, and I regard with deep suspicion anyone claiming that ‘God’ has given them a licence to kill. However, it does happen, and we need to come to terms with this particular insanity, which never seems insane to those who find it a handy excuse. It’s noticeable that these young siblings ask for their gods’ help after they’ve decided to kill Helen, not before. I got the impression that Electra was getting a taste for murder by then.

The couple try kidnapping Menelaus’ baby as a way of negotiating an escape, but it all goes horribly wrong when Orestes tries to fly off a cliff. Oops. Not having a handy cliff on stage, the shoe-laden door had to double as a dangerous precipice (from comments at the post-show, this didn’t involve any acting on the door’s part). I found this ending a bit confusing, because there was so much going on. On the cliff, we have Electra, in front of her brother but supposedly looking forward at him. He’s behind her physically, so he can use a rope to brace himself and appear to be flying or falling (take your pick). Menelaus is down below, screaming at everyone because he’s petrified his baby is going to be killed, and Helen’s dead body has somehow rolled itself onto the stage. God knows what Tyndareos and the slave woman are doing – I couldn’t keep track of it all. Orestes has also sprouted some feathers at his shoulders, which were intriguing, but didn’t help with the clarity at this point. Also, the rear semicircle of the stage burst into flames as all this is happening, so we had a few hazards to keep our minds off the action. Normally I like Shared Experience’s multi-layering, but this was a bit too much. I basically focused on Electra and Orestes, and left the rest to their own devices.

There wasn’t much else to report on the staging; the set worked well to convey the place and situation – an opulent prison – and the main focus was simply the performances, all of which were first rate. I would happily see this again.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me