JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 23.2.15.
5 stars *****
THEATRE. IT’S ROUGH, it’s often pretentious, and it’s always a more risky bet than any form of screen entertainment. There are moments, though, when a play and a company come together in such an explosion of energy and passion that everyone who experiences it learns all over again, with every cell of their bodies, why people make live theatre, and always will. The new Royal Lyceum version of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle – written in 1944, now revived in a brilliant production by artistic director Mark Thomson – marks one of those moments; and everyone with a heartbeat should strive to see it, or be poorer for missing it.
The timeliness of the story is what seizes the attention first. The play famously begins with a village debate about land ownership, which is then put on pause while the local people perform a play based on a traditional story about justice – its usual failures, and one magic moment when it works. There’s plenty of onstage music, too, reminding us of the direct line of descent from Brecht’s work, through the touring Theatre Workshop of Ewan McColl and Joan Littlewood, to our own 7:84 and Wildcat companies. As the village play begins, the musician and choreographer Sarah Swire (Belle & Sebastian, God Help The Girl) arrives in glamorous shades, and becomes the play’s chorus, leading the cast in Claire McKenzie’s bold, rock-based score with ever-increasing conviction and clarity.
And then the story begins, as the palace kitchen-girl Grusha, a 21st century refugee in bobble-hat and back-pack, flees the revolution that has killed her boss, but cannot resist taking with her the governor’s baby son, left behind in the chaos. “Terrible is the seductive temptation to do good!” glows the great neon sign on stage, in the most famous of all Brecht quotes; but Amy Manson’s breathtakingly wonderful Grusha, and the little, growing puppet-baby she takes with her, already have our hearts in the palms of their hands, as they travel on through danger and deprivation, and painful compromise with the need to survive, to the decisive moment when they reach the court of the unconventional peasant judge, Azdak.
Mark Thomson’s 13-strong ensemble – including a superb Christopher Fairbank as Azdak – perform like a company possessed by the briliance and significance of their story; they are funny, moving, compelling, unstoppable, right to the final fade to darkness. “Why did they kill all the governors, judges, landowners, bankers?” roars Azdak. “Why do you think? Too much injustice, too much war.” Some things, in other words, never change; and neither do the Grushas of this world, travelling, struggling, finding a space for the next generation to thrive, in spite of everything.
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 14 March.