To set Brecht’s great Marxist drama in a church seems at best paradoxical, at worst misguided. In fact, it is an unexpected gift- comparable perhaps to one’s first experience of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ against a backdrop of real trees or Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’ in the shadow of one of England’s ‘Great Houses’ – the setting enhances the work and its themes. The grey pillars of Hampstead Church disappearing into the high sepulchral gloom, emphasises the frantic action of the ‘epic theatre’ to which Brecht aspired - through instruction and entertainment showing the human condition as it is and a glimpse of how it might be better ordered. The immanence of the cool gloom, tempered by a glass of red wine on the pew shelf in front, recalls Plato’s cave as metaphor for life.
It also it works to enhance the biblical themes inherent in the play. Bertolt Brecht, product of a devout Catholic upbringing in Bavaria, rejected a belief system with which he was intimately acquainted and which influenced his writing. Although originating mainly from a Chinese folk tale, references to dates in the Christian calendar associates the work with medieval Mystery plays whilst its theme of natural justice relates it to the biblical judgement of Solomon.
Written in 1944, the play combines a ‘meanwhile, in a different part of the battlefield’ linear progression, a narrative which is basically a love test set against the upheavals of war with a ‘play within a play’. In a prologue which parallels the main action two groups of peasants dispute the ownership and potential use of a piece of land. In combining the perennial Marxist ownership theme with a surprisingly topical concept of sustainability the main theme of the play is both introduced and resolved before the main action proceeds. It also introduces the idea of collaborative action which is so important to an understanding of the play.
Brecht aimed to show that social factors produce behaviour patterns and value systems.The scenes combine broad comedy with pointed irony. He contrasts, for instance, the high status wife’s migraines and preoccupation with fine clothes with a proposal scene stressing the importance of good health and a willingness to work as desirable female qualities. The governor’s wife rescues her dresses but leaves her son behind; Grusha the servant girl raises the child despite physical hardship and moral coercion whilst waiting for lover to return from the fighting. The depiction of ordinary men and women as victims of rising prices and social injustice embraces religion oppression – Grusha, unable to reveal the child is not hers, faces the harsh Russian winter because her sister-in-law is too ‘pious’ to have an unmarried mother in the house and is forced into marriage to satisfy religious convention. As in other plays by Brecht, the typical foot soldier lacks the cruel instincts and detachment of his officers.'The soldiers shoot each other whilst the officers salute each another' according to one character's summary.
Although the play does rely to a great deal on ensemble playing, demonstrated to an admirable degree by the Hampstead Players, it depends on a strong stage presence for the role of Arkadi the Singer, who acts as a kind of chorus, narrating and commenting on the action, fulfilling one of the Brecht’s ‘alienation’ techniques whereby the audience is encouraged not just to get carried away by the emotions of the play but engage in an interior discussion with its meaning. Her lines carry much of the elegiac strength of the language contrasted with the comic ‘homespun’ sayings of the lesser characters. Here the role is admirably filled by the tall dark-haired Sarah Barron, her relaxed, almost languid stance distinguishing her from the protagonists caught up in the action and her strong voice penetrating to the back pews. A trio of excellent musicians alongside the stage contribute vocally as well as instrumentally.
Hannah Williams makes an admirably credible Grusha, appearing in almost every scene and needing to convey an almost impossible, one might say Christ-like wide-eyed but stoical central role combining endurance with responsibility, helplessness and strength. Also memorable is Andrew Grieve as the vulnerable lover and axe-wielding bandit, and Steve Pucci as Blockhead, the reluctant soldier with attitude. Sally Wallen is excellent as the haughtily governor’s wife whilst Edward Smith’s comic versatility enlivens several minor scenes. Bill Riseboro combines a strong stage presence in the pivotal role of Azdak the reprobate clerk turned drunken judge with a flair for direction, making admirable use of the space into which this masterpiece of modern drama so unexpectedly fits.
It's 22nd-24th November, not December
The Caucasian Chalk Circle holds at its center the resilience of the average worker. The Shotgun production begs the question: how can you live a prosperous, dignified existence in the middle of a war zone? Or, how do you keep your barbershop open in Baghdad, Port-au-Prince or Sarajevo? This production is dedicated to people from all over the world who are being forced into this position.