The Caucasian Chalk Circle – Rose Theatre Kingston, London

Reviewer: Chris Lilly

Writer: Bertolt Brecht (adapted by Steve Waters)

Director: Christopher Haydon

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a sort of Marxist folk tale, set in a Georgia (USSR not USA) beset by the ebbs and flows of revolutions and counter-revolutions. Brecht wrote it in 1944 as an illustration of myth at the service of a theatre of instruction, and it has been brought bang up to date by Steve Waters. In a United Nations facility for the re-homing of refugees, two groups of displaced people argue about an irrigation project that will drown a valley, but make the surrounding desert fertile. When the parties find they can’t agree, a ballad singer (Zoe West) arrives to tell them the story of the Chalk Circle, the brave servant girl Grusha Vashnadze (Carrie Hope Fletcher) and the rascally judge Azdak (Jonathan Slinger) meting out his own very particular flavour of justice.

The first half of the play is the story of Grusha’s trials and tribulations as she seeks to escape from revolutionary turmoil, and feels a bit like a long exposition to give context to the second half, the story of Azdak’s rise to prominence and his singular judicial practice in resolving a dilemma.

The sense that the first part is a long introduction to the second part is reinforced by the huge jolt of energy that Jonathan Slinger brings to the proceedings. It isn’t particularly the fault of the other actors. Brecht has so much more interest in Azdak as a character than he does in the other, rather stereotypical, characters, and this especially disadvantages Carrie Hope Fletcher, trying to give some depth to Grusha beyond ‘brave’ and ‘honourable’. When she gets to sing with Zoe West, the energy levels rise incrementally and she looks like she’s having fun.

The set (by Oli Townsend) is multi-level, large-scale industrial shelving with ladders, and the steel framed beds that were in the refugees dormitory, and it works very well. Things clang and grate and jar, and that is exactly what they should do. The music is harsh and discordant too, although Zoe West is very charming and chirpy. She brings the rest of the cast in to help her, as needed, and falls nobly into the role of guitar accompanist when Carrie Hope Fletcher unleashes her impressive voice. The costumes are layers of rags and found fabrics over UN issued overalls, and do a great job. Oli Townsend designs costumes too, and the overall look gives a fine context to the working out of the fable.

Apart from Zoe West, Carrie Hope Fletcher, and Jonathan Slinger, everyone else plays many different characters. Ronny Jhutti and Shiv Rabheru mine their parts to good comic effect, and Daniel Aiden Matembe, who plays the child at the centre of the story, does some excellent break-dancing in the finale. Jonathan Slinger, however, makes his time on stage magical and totally engaging. It unbalances the production somewhat, his complete absence from the stage in the first act, and his total domination of the stage in act two, but it is acting of a very, very high standard, and makes the trip to Kingston completely worthwhile.

Runs until 22 October 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

engaging, exciting, epic.

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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