The Caucasian Chalk Circle comes freighted in an audience’s perception with so much political ‘significance’ – not to say artistic ‘importance’ – that the excellent story it tells is often overlooked.

The best known of Bertolt Brecht’s later plays, it was once a staple of the stage, the amateur and student stage especially. These days, productions are rare, on account perhaps of its length, so it is good to see the revival this week at Oxford Playhouse. It comes from the amusingly named undergraduate group Screw the Looking Glass, which last year offered a highly competent account of Julian Mitchell’s Another Country at the same venue.

About its length some will feel concern. The show was scheduled to last three hours, but last night’s opening performance was fully half an hour longer. “Phew, that’s the longest play I have seen,” said a lad behind me as we left, who clearly hasn’t done much Shakespeare.

But a play is as long as it needs to be. Any reluctance to take the axe to this one could be presented as disinclination to tamper with a sacred text. That’s it’s too good to cut would probably be a truer explanation.

The dramatic premise is well known. Two groups of Caucasian villagers are squabbling over a piece of land. We are shown a parallel to their dilemma in a story they then act out. This concerns the rescue by the peasant girl Grusha (Constance Greenfield) of a baby, Michael, who is abandoned by his aristocratic mother as she flees an insurrection during which her governor husband is slain (beheaded in grisly fashion, actually).

After much thrilling, picaresque adventure, the woman and child reach safety, only to find their happiness together threatened when the real mother returns. The dispute over the boy’s future is settled by a drunken, but innately wise, working-class judge Azdak (the excellent Luke Rollason), by a process that involves the disputants pulling Michael from within the chalk circle of the title, which is drawn on the courtroom floor.

We are given to understand by this means that just as the boy belongs to the woman who will truly cherish him, the valley must go to those who will best care for it.

Thus are presented two parables – one of pity, the second of justice – told with all the skill and the variety of dramatic resources for which Brecht is famed.

An 11-strong ensemble company, some playing instruments (music Roddy Skeaping), perform a variety of roles as the story unfolds. Sometimes they are rollicking villagers; at other times snooty aristocrats. Some appear as menacing ‘ironshirt’ soldiers, pursuing Grusha and her charge - created by the puppeteer Suzi Battersby – on their flight through the mountains.

Director Jessica Lazar presents these in eye-catching silhouette, eagles soaring above, on the white sheets draped over the ‘cubes’ of scaffolding that dominate designer Alexandra Talbott’s set.

Commentary on the action is supplied, sometimes in song, by the white-faced master of ceremonies (one rather thinks of Cabaret’s Emcee) Arkadi. As portrayed by Jack Sain, he is one of a number of characters whose utterances sometimes go unheard, or are a serious strain to listen to.

With so much to savour in the words and action - which is by turns exciting, comic, touching, anger-inducing - this is a great pity.

Only three actors are identified with characters in the programme, which makes it impossible to offer individual praise to the others. Let me then applaud as a group the whole ensemble which is composed of Dominic Applewhite, Claire Bowman, Florence Brady, Aoife Cantrill, Howard Coase, Emma D’Arcy, Tom Dowling, Andy Laithwaite, Grainne O’Mahoney, Will Stanford and Leo Suter.


Oxford Playhouse

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