In 1979 Sam Walters staged Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle in the old Orange Tree theatre at Richmond, using multiple actors to play the main roles of Grusha and Asdak and with a specially written prologue reflecting an issue of keen local contention at the time. Now, on the eve of the Orange Tree's thirtieth anniversary, he's done it again.
The prologue is different, of course: this time around, Brecht's scripted discussion between two Soviet collective farms is abandoned as the actors begin to argue about the redevelopment of a local riverside site. The discussion, equally naturally, is entirely scripted (by long-time Orange Tree associate James Saunders); moreover, the actors' delivery does not attempt to make it sound otherwise. This, one presumes, is a deliberate decision to be "Brechtian": don't make the debate sound natural, so that the audience doesn't get distracted by how it's conducted and has to listen to what is being said.
At least, that's the theory. The practice, as in at least 95% of Brecht productions, is that intellectual alienation of the audience goes hand in hand with the intended emotional kind. The story of how kitchen maid Grusha saves the governor's baby during an abortive revolt in a semi-mythical Georgia, and of how the custody case is adjudicated by drunken, eccentric town clerk-turned-judge Asdak, has a clear Brechtian moral, which the company helpfully spell out in Saunders' prologue as well as at the end of the play proper: "what there is shall go to those who are good for it". And the switching of roles is a nice touch, as one Grusha passes to another the cross on a neck-chain, or one Asdak to another the vestigial robe of office, which are the only symbols of character among a cast of eleven otherwise completely in mufti.
But it is the devil's own work to make Brecht's theories of drama actually behave as he expected them to, at least on a British stage. The only truly successful production of this kind that I have ever seen was Steven Powell's gleeful Good Woman Of Setzuan, this spring's National Theatre touring show. As for this piece, I have myself played Asdak twice, and admit that I have no idea what works in this regard, but I do have practical experience of what doesn't.
Part of the problem here may be that the Orange Tree audience is not a particularly Brechtian constituency. Indeed, some seemed to make that decision at quite an early point: the theatre seemed noticeably less full than on other press nights. Brecht can certainly be a major turn-off when not done well; unfortunately, in common with many other directors, Walters has gone only part of the way towards resolving the difficulties.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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