The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Shared Experience at the West Yorks Playhouse. 15-10-09

Brecht is not one of my favourite playwrights. It’s all a bit too hectoring and didactic. I understand that he wants his audience to stand back from the characters and judge their actions rather than identifying with them so much that you forget what he is trying to teach you, but I would rather learn in my own way from the characters by identifying with them in exactly the way he doesn’t want me to. All the same, it’s theatre and I really like Shared Experience so there I was, in the middle of a matinee audience full of young teenagers who were ready to howl with laughter every time the cynical debased soldier said dickhead and wolf whistle at the sight of a man sitting in a bath. I would say that they need to grow up but probably that’s what they were there for.

Photograph by Keith Pattison.

There was a lot to enjoy, especially when the stronger writing kicked in in the second half and the two 24 carat performances were able to come into their own. James Clyde had enormous presence, attack and control as the singer and Azdak the judge and Matti Houghton made a very touching and heartfelt Grusha, making the most of the fact that she was the only actor allowed to stay absolutely inside her character for the whole play. It was a relief to be able to take her side and stand with her against all the cynicism which threatened to destroy her.
The chorus of local people were very good and worked especially well with James Clyde. Thankfully I managed to keep my envy of the fact that they were up there on stage singing and reacting under control- I’d have loved to be sitting with them.
There was some wonderful use of puppetry as the child grew up. The moment when he walked into the courtroom and we saw him on his feet for the first time drew gasps of pleasure from the audience and the company really made him live. Lots of  nice touches in the staging too- a river made from a long cloth unrolled at speed in shades of blue, Grusha crossing a ravine with two ropes and some strobe lighting, and a huge effigy of a murdered judge built around a surgical stand which could be pushed around at speed. There was also a bag of rehydration fluids attached to the judges chair (which was a barbers chair- echoes of Sweeney Todd) and I thought that was very telling.

I suppose my two reservations were that I really don’t think the writing in the first half is always strong enough and there were a few of the cast who couldn’t quite achieve the control needed to play the character and stand apart and play the message at the same time. I think that’s probably a very difficult trick to pull off.

A really worthwhile afternoon then, especially if a few of those kids who were so irritating grow up to love theatre and be annoyed in their turn.

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