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The Caucasian Chalk Circle is an all-round triumph!

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is an all-round triumph!

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10 December 2018

A review of the Senior School Drama production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

There is no such thing as perfect circle in nature, I am told. There is probably no such thing as perfection in theatre either. But every now and then there comes along a production so beautiful, so funny, so lyrical, so polished that it feels like a small bauble of practical perfection in performance. The Caucasion Chalk Circle showcases KES Senior Drama at its hilarious, heart-breaking best with virtuoso solo performances, stand out comedy cameos and powerful ensemble acting that make it an all-round triumph.

One of the greatest plays of the twentieth century, Bertolt Brecht’s masterpiece plays on the idea of concentric circles – the ripples of consequence from a single event. Set in a fictional realm of historical revolution and refugees, The Caucasian Chalk Circle offers a commentary on the current migrant crisis, institutional corruption, the ‘two nations of rich and poor’ that exist in the modern world. So how can it be so side-splittingly funny, I hear you ask? Trust me, it is! 

There was Thomas Wilson for a start: channelling TOWIE and The Real Housewives of … Somewhere, as a the gloriously, grotesquely glamorous Governor’s Wife. In sparkly leggings, wine-coloured wig and with a bad case of botox, she goes full Megan Markle on her long-suffering servants. As the revolution rages and frantic reports of looting, rioting and lynching force her to flee, she is so concerned with her ‘darling’ little red dress she fails to notice her hubbie is beheaded, and then forgets to pack the baby!  To lose one family member may be regarded as misfortune, to lose two smacks of carelessness, Mr Wilson! 

Brecht clearly had no time for the ‘useless rich’ – he ruthlessly satirised the abuse of privilege and the blindness of the powerful to the suffering beneath their yolk. This balance of parody and parable was skilfully portrayed by James Carney as the slickly self-satisfied Governor; Lorenzo Montani as the self-serving Adjutant – a fussy busy body in voluminous trousers; and Ollie Cochran as the Machiavellian Prince – a Jeeves and Wooster swell who turns opportunist tyrant.

But 'the poor we will always have with us' (as Mr Dickens put it) and ignoring their plight leads the oppressed and starving masses to rise up against their autocratic rulers.  The ensemble cast powerfully conveyed the power of the mob as revolution was hammered out on milk pails and tin cans and played out on stage in the comedy capers of gurning peasants.

As the bloody head of the governor is displayed above the cradle of his abandoned baby, it is a servant girl who shows compassion. Under blood red skies, Grusha flees with the child across mountains and rivers and deserts, pursued by soldiers, at the mercy of the elements. Her flight is movingly and beautifully brought alive by the ensemble. Cloth silks drape the stage and the full moon shines down on the action, accompanied by the plangent strains of the guitar, a single fiddle, a capella singing. Silks transform into rivers, and glaciers, snowflakes tumble from a watering can, raindrops tapped out on a bucket, whistling actors create sound-scape of wind over the mountains.

Grusha transforms through the play, and her coming-of-age is charted by the moving and insightful performances of four KES actresses – first she is the warm and gutsy carefree girl who gives her heart so freely (Rosie Cooper); then the heroic, quick-thinking young woman who outwits soldiers and fights to protect the innocent infant (Emma Botteril); then the desperate asylum seeker, poignantly struggling by any means to keep her baby safe (Amelia Newton) finally the ‘mother-in-love’ whose heart-rending decision to give up her child rather than harm him was movingly and powerfully conveyed by Lauren Dalboth. Each actress lent a new facet to the role and the combined effect was heart-rending and life-affirming.

The whole production was awash with comic grotesques: Davide Montani’s Dickensian caricature Old Man; Emily Farmer as the dim-witted, kind-hearted, lily-livered Farmer’s Wife and James Carney as her bah-humbug husband. There was Meg Lintern’s lisping hypochondriac who made soup eating into a comedy masterclass; Ella Featherstone as the wheeler dealer Innkeeper on the make, exploiting the migrant crisis Del Boy style; Matt Marshall on a hobby horse as the Mission-Impossible-via-The-Matrix Horseman who nobody would listen to; Ellie Brown as the comically cowardly – but ultimately heroic - Cook; and Emma Thomas as the hilariously resentful Inn Servant, like Mrs Brown (minus her boys!) gurning, groaning, picking her nose – I honestly could have watched her all night!

There were some glorious double acts too:  Henry Skinner and Georgie Sewell as Doctors bickering over diagnosis then descending into a punching match in comedy slo-mo, Bridget Jones style. They return later as a pair of Lawyers – LA Law meets Legally Blonde, the doubling-up perhaps making a point about ubiquitous institutional corruption.  Meg Lintern and Iyshea Hender as the flamboyant ‘Grand Designs’ Architects – eat your heart out Laurence Lewellyn-Bowen and  Kevin McCloud; Jemima Tollworthy and James Carney as  the bickering wannabe divorcees; Ollie Cochran and Meg Lintern as the hen-pecking and hen-pecked Aniko and Lavrenti; and the posh victims of war – the burbling, twittering Meg Lintern and Ella Fairhurst, resplendent in wigs that screamed ‘Brian-May-meets-Cher-via-Angie-from Eastenders’ declaring ‘we are not refugees!’

The narrators were intended by Brecht as a distancing device, but here they were interwoven through the plot, lyrically and physically: commentating on events, voicing characters’ internal monologues, singing and dancing through their thoughts, movement and song often conveying what words could not. They even intervene in the plot at one point - passing Grusha props to protect herself from the violation of the soldiers. And they change and shift, cast members become chorus and vice-versa, a powerful play on the idea of the interconnectedness of all our lives – that we are at once both protagonists in our own dramas and spectators of others.

The versatility of KES actors was at the forefront of this production. Sam Holdsworth was hilarious as the drunken Monk who delivers wedding vows and last rites as a package deal, but then played Simon Chachava with a moving sincerity that was touching, heart-breaking at times, and ultimately alive with hope. Ally Darnton was the archetypal comedy villain – Keystone Cops meets the KGB; then the ‘dying’ husband wheeled in on his death bed for an emergency wedding before rising Lazarus-like from the brink of the grave to get his mum to  scrub his back as he luxuriated with a rubber duck in a giant tin bath (it was actually worth coming just for the bath sequence – oh and that extraordinary bathing costume!); then finally the drunken champion of the underdog, the inscrutable judge Azdak who must decide which ‘mother’ has the better claim to the child’s custody through the ‘chalk circle’ test.

Shot through the comedy of this production were moments of powerful pathos. The overlapping monologues of Grusha and Simon, separated by war and water, were devastating and beautiful. He talked of the catalogue of horrors he has witnessed in combat, a case study in PTSD; she of the sacrifices made for the sake of humanity because ‘somebody must be the one who helps.’

The play has the quality of a fable and the moral of the story wasn’t hard to spot: what goes around comes around and we are all connected in the infinite circle of life. But there are other circles too: inner circles which exclude; bonds which encircle and entrap; family circles (that can be bound by more than blood).

And the KES Drama family circle clearly continues to go from strength to strength: the set and costumes from Becca Long and lighting design from James Sellick were as beautifully and brilliantly conceived as ever; the pupil backstage crew were slick and seamless; and  the directorial team lead by Robyn Trust (and including former KES pupil Lucy Thomas in her first gig behind the spotlights) were utterly inspired – and clearly inspirational! There were glorious performances from actors who have trodden the KES boards for seven years (oh, how we will miss you but thank you for the legacy you leave behind!) as well as from talented new faces and younger actors coming-of-age in their first Senior school production - all boding well for the future of KES Senior Drama!   

I laughed my way through this production but I came out strangely moved. Was it the beautiful set and lighting? Was it the music and ‘dooby-dooing’ conceived by Lauren Dalboth?  Was it the lines in this play so gorgeous, so lyrical they knocked me sideways (‘Terrible is the seductive power of goodness’… ‘Whoever does not hear a cry for help will never hear the soft cry of a lover’ and the inimitable ‘a fart has no nose’)? Was it the way that all the theatrical spheres aligned in this heartbreakingly hilarious production? I’m not sure, but as I left the theatre with the sound of Thomas Wilson’s histrionics, and the final lines of the singers ringing in my ears I felt uplifted, hopeful, I had a smile on my face – and I was still chuckling! An ‘all-round’ winning combination!

 

Review kindly produced by Mrs Bruton, English department

A gallery of images from the show can be viewed here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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