Review by Daz Gale
A revolution is happening at the Rose Theatre in Kingston both figuratively and literally as Bertolt Brecht’s epic masterpiece The Caucasian Chalk Circle gets its first major London production for 25 years. With a modern revision and featuring the play debut of a West End leading lady, there’s many reasons to be excited for this revival – but does it live up to its promise?
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is set in the midst of a bloody revolution – in this play within a play, a young woman risks everything to rescue an abandoned child and then has to face the test of the chalk circle in a bid to keep the child as her own. Split into five scenes, it tells the story of Grusha in her attempt to rescue the Governors child and the arduous journey she faces to keep him safe before flipping the story in act two where we get to know a new character who proves to be vital to tying the seemingly two separate stories together in the end.
Brechts classic story has been modernised and updated. Adapted by Steve Waters, there are references to iPad and TikTok, which in the hands of someone else might have felt a bit more jarring and clumsily shoehorned in. Here though, it all feels natural and thanks to a well thought out adaptation brings a play first written in 1944 feel far more recent and relevant.
The play features original music from Michael Henry, predominantly sung by a character known as The Singer, played by Zoe West. Inserting herself into the story wherever possible armed with her trust guitar, she gives a folk style to the proceedings, charming the audience with easy-natured songs, though some have the tendency to be a bit one-note and repetitive, veering dangerously close to annoying territory.
The role of Grusha is played by Carrie Hope Fletcher. More used to playing roles in musicals such as Heathers and Les Miserables, this marks Carries first time in a play (though the fact she does get to showcase her beautiful singing voice regularly makes the transition that much easier). A world class performer and one of the best the West End has to offer, Carrie has proved time and time again what an accomplished performer she is, even making Cinderella watchable. Given some decent writing to lend her talents is, she is better than ever, showcasing her versatility as an actress and her immeasurable talent in an emotive and gripping portrayal.
Jonathan Slinger may take a back seat for most of act one but he makes up for it with a truly remarkable portrayal of Azdak in act 2. Managing to be comedic while effortlessly portraying the complexities of his character, he manages to make the audience feel as if we have known his character all along, despite his rapid inclusion in the contrasting opening of act 2.
Joanna Kirkland is a marvel as the Governors wife, while Nickcolia King-N’Da gives a beautifully sweet performance as Simon. Shiv Rabheru is a highlight taking on a variety of roles including Grushas brother Lavrenti displaying impeccable comic timing, with the cast completed by Ronny Jhutti, Adeola Yemitan and Bridgitta Roy making up what is truly a consistently flawless cast.
The fairly vast stage at the Rose Theatre is stunningly transformed thanks to inspired set design from Oli Townsend. Seeing the cast climb ladders to get to the second of three tiers which in turn transitions wonderfully thanks to some clever lighting from Mark Jonathan, the whole thing feels grander than you might expect from a comparatively small theatre such as The Rose. Fantastic direction from Christopher Haydon gives The Caucasian Chalk Circle a well rounded feel in a strong production.
The themes in the play are regularly powerful, with the performers at the beginning being displaced thanks to atrocities in the world being starkly relevant to todays society. The theme of what it means to be a mother is sensitively portrayed with The Caucasian Chalk Circle managing to prove truly gripping at its best, While it all might seem serious on the surface, it is also full of laugh out loud funny moments, with witty lines and visual gags providing a firm balance to the tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes.
Whether you are familiar with Brecht and this particular play or not, The Caucasian Chalk Circle is immediately accessible, regardless of your prior knowledge for his theatrical style. The fact it still feels up to date despite the fact it was written 78 years ago, without taking anything away from the original text or intent of the story truly is a testament to the strength of this adaptation. Fantastic staging and a wonderful cast including a better than ever Carrie Hope Fletcher makes this a perhaps surprisingly incredible production. If you were to put this production in a chalk circle to see how it fares as a revised piece of work, it would surely pass the test.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle plays at the Rose Theatre in Kingston until October 22nd. Tickets from www.rosetheatre.org
Photos by Iona Firouzabadi