Tag Archives: Caucasian Chalk Circle

Decisions decisions… Brecht at the RNT

I went to see the Royal National Theatre of The UKs production of THREEPENNY OPERA whilst over in London, performed in the huge Olivier Theatre. Directed by Rufus Norris, the production was spectacular, had a guttural and appropriately harsh translation from Simon Stephens , a fantastic band and some full blooded acting from the cast, led by Rory Kinnear, Haydyn Gwynne and an amazing performance from Nick Holder as Peachum. Full use was maðe of revolves, lifts and moving staircases and the almost continuously moving set designed by Vicki Mortimer had the right atmosphere. In the immediate charged atmosphere of Brexit, chaos in parliament and the polarisation in the populus, the play was incredibly topical. There were some raw, bold moments. And yet….

Every decision we make when we create a piece of theatre has ramifications. Of course this does not mean that the director, design team and actors do not have to make decisions. If they did not, then they would most likely make a piece which was flabby and rudderless. But every time you make a strong decision, the creative team have to understand that in making it, they cut themselves off from some amazing possibilities.

Ultimately, as professional as this work was, it followed the route of spectacle, something I would define as an attempt to avoid the real issues by some distracting visuals. The spectacle has power, ‘shock and awe’ etc but too often it misses something. Too much set moving in crucial songs occurred time and time again, diluting the power of performer and song. For instance, Surubaya Johnny, one of the most famous songs in the whole piece, was accompanied by one of the largest scenic shifts. During MacHeath and Tiger Browns Soldier’s Song, really excellently performed , sandbags swung down from the audience on ropes and took me away from the emotional movement of the song. There were many annoying things like this which distracted us from the guts of this story and that the characters were in pain, vicious, trapped and angry. This process of spectacle reminded me a little of how often directors like to embroider plays, most particularly Shakespeare, in order, they believe, to keep the audience engaged. I felt there was something of this with the songs…. a feeling they were too long and needed ‘dressing up’ a bit.

The polarity of good and evil is incredibly important in Brecht’s work. More emphasis on this polarity would have helped to give the play more depth and hence make the second half more interesting to watch. By the end of Part one all the magazines seemed to have been emptied because the emotional level was merely anger and violence. Back to polarities: Brecht’s line in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, ‘ Terrible is the Temptation to do good’, suggests that oppressed people in a shitty world struggle to perform good deeds because the fear-charged atmosphere in which they exist mitigates against good action. In Threepenny Opera there is a whole song dedicated to this polarity of trying to act morally in an immoral and cruel world. I would have liked to have seen more of those moments of conflict between the atmosphere of savagery and moments, or attempted moments, of goodness.

This polarity is not sentimental but a reality. In this production however, no character even thought of doing anything kind or loving for one moment. It never crossed their mind. The whole world was twisted and perverse and the characters operated within it. Of course I know this is the point, but it is not the whole story. If it were, then the play, like the production, would ultimately be unsustainable. Polly especially becomes corrupted and gets sucked in to being as criminal as her parents. She changes. We needed to see that journey more. By making her strong from the start, we ultimately got no sense of movement , and by that I mean emotional movement. So although Rosalie Craig gave a strong performance it didn’t really for me go anywhere. This stasis was in all the characters. Some people might argue it was a ‘Brechtian’ choice to give the characters no development and to keep them permanently as harsh types. But as a result of this character stasis, the production became for me tedious after the interval. It fully became a spectacle at a time when it needed to be finding some depth.

Let’s take Mcheath. Now it is important for me that we do not sympathise with him, or find him charming but in his final song on the scaffold he has got to be fearful, imploring as well as defiant. Here was another moment I would have preferred the song to have been focussed on his feelings rather than the giant staircase up which he was progressing. There is a lot of emotional movement in what might be his final moments as he loses power and the only people left for him are the audience . Despite Rory Kinnear’s bullish and energetic performance, there was absolutely no flexibility, or if there was, then I did not see it. I suspect this might have been a directorial decision but I could be wrong.

A pivotal scene in the second half was the scene with the Police Officer Smith whom McHeath tries to bribe in order to help him escape. Much as it might be appealing to assume that all policemen are corrupt, a different and more powerful choice might have been made which would have pulled this scene into something more morally dense. The policeman shocked by the corruption of his superior is ripe pickings for McHeath and Officer Hill succumbs . There is an emotional movement here. When we discover our heroes have feet of clay this is a ripe moment for compromise or corruption.

In the final moment of this recent production, and this is a different point, there was an implication that McHeath had an affair with a prince of the realm and so he is saved. The final moment had him kissing a prince in front of the entire cast. This from a man who has robbed, raped, murdered, scarred and debased women. There is a lot more gay subtext, made very explicit in this version which was sometimes effective, but this final moment I found rather offensive in what is at the end of the day a political cabaret which is supposed to be saying something. What was this final tableaux saying ? Here before us, is the ultimate corruption? All this corruption is down to repressed gay sex? I am sure that was not what was intended but that was how it appeared. When I looked up John Willett’s translation, the alternative ending of Mack getting his reprieve has one target only; to make the audience feel that with a happy ending they can go off satisfied. It’s a comment on the audience and a jibe against us, not a further complication of the morality of the plot.

Decisions decisions….


‘That it shall bear fruit’ Chalk Circle final act

Before I finally let go of my production of the Caucasian Chalk Circle I would like to share some discoveries that came because of my exploration into Chekhov’s laws of composition, along with my own experience and common sense.

In my experience it is always a massive wrench for the audience when we leave the story of Grusha suspended in the narrative, and take a step back in time to follow the story of Azdak, the man who will become her judge in the case of the child. This is inevitable given we feel we know Grusha, have followed her story for three acts, and understand what she has given up in order to keep the child. We identify and empathise with her and suddenly she is gone from the play. Ironically I know all this flies in the face of the idea of Brechtian alienation but I feel, as did one of my student actors, that Brecht fails miserably in his attempt to alienate in the Chalk Circle because Grusha, Simon and Azdak are such sympathetic characters.

So back to the wrench the audience experience as they move not just from one story to the other, and one lead character to another , but to a different style of playing as well. They move from an epic tale to a cabaret. 

In exploring the play through the principles of composition of Michael Chekhov I looked at the shape of the play with the cast as to its beginning, middle and end. The whole of the first three stories concerning Grusha and her escape and her sacrifice in order to protect little Michael, belonged to the beginning .It seemed,in our exploration, that the Story of the Judge, the section in which Azdak is introduced and,through a fluke, becomes the judge throughout the chaos which follows the revolution, was like a party; an anarchic time through which fairness and justice occasionally shone through on those poor and disenfranchised people who were usually ignored, abused and spat upon. We felt this section had the atmosphere of a party. This party section was the middle. 

Before the end of this act though, the rulers from the beginning were back, and order (and repression) was restored. This was beginning of the end section.

So we reach the Trial, a heady atmosphere where the forces of repression and anarchy struggle in the courtroom. There is a great temptation in this final act to fall into the ‘fable trap’. What I mean is an assumption that everyone knows the end so we just play the act with strength and pace. The act however is full of moral twists and turns.

What is interesting for me is how Azdak gives Grusha such a hard time for nearly 30 minutes before eventually being courageous enough to award the child to her. Is he just a boor? What is clear is though he knows full well the Governor’s wife wants the child for her own material reasons, he is rude to Grusha and appears to side with the nobles. His life has just been saved and he has been reappointed as judge through his own random act of kindness. 

It seems to me that Grusha is his conscience; through her sacrifice and endurance and love for this child she moves from being an obedient servant to being an outspoken revolutionary. For me though this is less interesting than what is happening to Azdak, who has a decision to make. Is he going to side with the rich, compromise his principles and save his life? Or is he going to side with Grusha and move into a very dangerous future? It is easy to justify giving the child to the nobles. After all, Natella is the real mother, but it is not the moral decision. We all make these compromises every single day of our lives, and for me this courageous decision of Azdak, along with the fact that both he and Grusha perform acts of generosity which result in transformation is what makes this a really great uplifting yet unsentimental play.

Atmospheres and qualities of the Chalk Circle

There is something extraordinary about how a production takes shape. Dependent on material, personnel, their skills and level, the venue and resources available, all feed in to how the show evolves. I can never understand how directors begin with so much set firmly . Peter Brook’s ‘hunch’ always seems to me the best you can do at the start.


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rehearsal shot of the Caucasian Chalk Circle: drama students at NUI Galway: Laura Keown,Niamh Ryan,Damian Duddy,Cillian Browne, Aoife Corry,Niall Carmody,Paige Louter.

I have directed the Caucasian Chalk Circle by Brecht once before and appeared in it once. This time I am directing the students of  The Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance  NUI Galway in the famous Mick Lally Theatre , home of Druid Theatre Company, and the venue itself creates interesting challenges for a large cast. I actually did not agree to doing that play there until I had checked out the new seating block which allows now for five different exit points. Caucasian Chalk Circle is very much concerned with escape, and journies, so although there are many theatrical ways one can pretend to leave and return there is, in an actual entrance, an extraordinary element of surprise. We have only to consider this in real life, how the entrance of a person into the space changes the feel or atmosphere of a room and how it changes when they leave it. I have always been over sensitive to this change of dynamic and nowhere is it more obvious than in a play.


The first prevalent atmospheres/qualities in Chalk Circle are obvious; one is that of oppression and power as we are taken to a place where torture and abuse is acceptable all in the name of serving the nobility. The second section has an atmosphere/quality which we might describe as The Hunt, as Grusha goes on the run with the Royal baby. The third section, as Grusha sacrifices almost everything for the child she now loves, is a trickier proposition. For Grusha the third act is a grinding tragedy as she sacrifices her very personality and ego  for the child, though her life is not at risk  It is told however for the most part as a hilarious folk tale in which Grusha takes an apparently dying husband . If you go too much with Grusha’s sense of sacrifice then we lose out on the humour. If we play the section with a totally frivolous air then her emotional journey is lost. But one of the amazing things about Brecht is the way he exploits polarities and paradoxes. And it is this very grating of the tragedy and comedy, which give the act it’s flavour. it is something the Jacobean playwrights knew well. The fourth act, the story of Azdak, is almost an interlude . It definitely has a different flavour, a flavour of political cabaret. The fifth act brings about the resolution of the tale and has the atmosphere of justice and the scales…. We are asked to weigh the judgement.


The whole play is narrated by a singer. Each Act has a different singer. Our singers tell the story as if they are leading or imbuing the atmosphere of the act they narrate.


Another aspect that is influencing this production is the atmosphere  of the Mick Lally Theatre itself. As the home of the world famous Druid Theatre Company it has its own recent history, but when you look at its cave-like interior you feel as if you are trapped within the tectonic plates of time. The high walls are centuries old and as you absorb this atmosphere you can hear the world of modern Galway going on outside. This play about a slither of time that was ‘almost just’  has a strong poetic resonance with that . Here we are trying to present a play in what feels like a secret space. You feel as if you you are in a mine. You feel like an outsider and  play focuses a lot on the system of oppression..


The show plays from the 17th – 20th February. At the Mick Lally Theatre Druid Lane Galway Ireland . tickets available from druid@ticketsolve.com or sox box 091 492852

Terrible is The Temptation to do Good/ The Chalk Circle

Terrible is the Temptation to do Good’

This has got to be one of my favourite quotes of all time . As Grusha the servant girl, in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle ponders whether to save the baby whose parents oppress her and all her kind, thereby risking her own life, the Narrator speaks those words. We have all had those feelings, when the Temptation comes to speak out against something that is wrong, or to take an action which you know is right but might compromise your career or your relationship. It must have been a question which often needed to be asked in Germany as Hitler came to power and the Second World War was raging, around the time the play was writtten.

Caucasian-Chalk-Circle-2-Promethean-Ensemble-TheatreMy first contact with the play was when I was 17 and I watched an amateur production at the Lowther pavilion in St Anne’s near Blackpool. I remember the production was very static, and ‘Chinese’,[ the play is based on a Chinese story], and something in me even then said this play needs to be alive and vital and desperate. Much of the story concerns a young girl running for her life. I have come across a number of productions that lacked this vital, accessible , adventure story element. They presumably lacked this vitality in an attempt to be ‘Brechtian’ which in some ways is a term I am still baffled by.  It seems to be interpreted as a kind of distancing of the audience from the material when at the end of the day, Brecht’s plays are human, funny , brutal, and gutsy.

My next contact with the play was when I was training at LAMDA. I played a massive range of roles , including A large female nurse, and I was the Singer for a portion of it. I remember the director, an amazing woman called Helena Kaut Hausen telling me that I had a feel for the material. Was it the sense of injustice in the story, or the sheer theatricality of it , or my own European genes that caused that, because I certainly felt it too, that affinity? But it was the play’s  raw energy , theatricality and joy  when I was performing it, that really won me over.

In 1999 I was asked to direct a youth theatre project at Limerick and chose the play for it. At first the young people were afraid they could not handle the play . It was too big, there were all those foreign names, one minute it was a musical, next minute it was a rip roaring comedy, next minute it was a tragedy… An incredibly diverse group acquitted themselves well, and discovered that the play was exciting and political. It spoke to them. This was at a time when there was very little political drama in Ireland and I felt it very important that young people could see the theatre had this power, not just to express their own immediate concerns but concerns of a wider sort.

A few years ago, I staged a reading of the play with eight professional actors. We rehearsed for three days only, and managed songs and limited movement . So much of the play leapt off the page even within these limited circumstances.

If I was to do this play again what elements have I missed?  One thing I do feel is that if a play has to say something about the times we live in then this one certainly does. The poor are exploited through poverty, through the media and on and on. If they have any say at all it is limited. They are tolerated to create wealth for the wealthy. Democracy as we have it, is at best something which gives some people a limited voice. When people take on the authorities, it is only in the most extraordinary circumstances of chaos that Justice wins through, or when highly principled whistle blowers, against all opposition, set their faces against the establishment.

When you work with youth theatre and students, then somehow it is the theatricality and ensemble nature of the story which makes this such a powerful play to do, but the reality of the oppression the poor suffer in the play is often stylised,as if the play was some kind of fairy tale, and not some bloody messy tale about people trying to survive,  laugh and get justice in a brutal, unjust and dangerous world. Intellectually at least, we know what the world is like because we see it on the news and the internet. Of course there is a view being expressed, but there is no doubt from the footage we see, that there is injustice, suffering, danger and poverty. We cannot kid ourselves. Chalk Circle is not really a fable. It is about the world as it is.