The Caucasian Chalk Circle – Bertolt Brecht Ayla Schafer

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a deliberate comment on society based on choice, rights and Justice. It deals with themes of ownership, belonging, love, responsibility, injustice and war, engaging the audience with new ideas and controversial thoughts. It centres on two women’s claim over a child, which, it seems, can only be resolved by using the chalk circle test. Above all it satirises the judiciary, mocks religious life and forces the onlookers to pick sides.

This production was performed in a fairly small square studio space where three sides of unfixed seating had been placed close to a small ‘stage’ area in the centre. The seats were just a foot away from the small ‘stage which was almost uncomfortably close, but gave a strange feeling of being part of the play rather then an observer of it.

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The only thing separating the seats/audience from the ‘stage’ was a white, taped line going around the edge, marking off a small area of grey floor about 6 metres wide and long and centre stage was a fairly large white, taped out circle, the chalk circle.

Up-stage there was an off white panel (as wide as the stage and about 2 1/2 metres tall) which acted as the back wall/cyclorama. It had large, bold black and red writing printed on it, saying ‘ The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ and another long sentence that set the background of the play. Throughout the play small sections of this large panel were taken off, twisted round for doorways, changed position etc.

The Watford Palace Theatre successfully performed a fast moving, imaginative production in the simple form of a satirical comedy. They kept it demanding to a modern audience with unique and interesting use of stage, voice and song, quick character changes between the small five-man cast but the most impressive thing was the almost one-to-one interaction that the actors had with the audience. By using regular eye contact and physical contact the audience was made to feel part of the story and felt real connections with the characters portrayed.

The actors really used the audience to their complete advantage, to help create their characters. By talking and communicating to the audience, and treating them as their character would treat other people, it gave a broader image of the characters as well as giving the audience a deep insight into the play. The characters came across as representing a type of person more than an individual, which is what Brecht aimed to happen.

The actors constantly involved the audience by directly speaking close up to them as if the line was meant for only them, the strong and constant eye contact was extremely powerful and the casual exchange of props between the two, all gave a very intimate relationship. The characters reactions and communications with others on stage were shown very deliberately with the audience, which again created an understanding of the categorized characters.

Andrew Emerson played a variety of parts, the two most significant being Georgi Abashvili and Azdac, which he portrayed as very opposite contradictory characters.

When playing Georgi Abashvili Andrew Emerson immediately gave him an air or superiority and composure. He held his body very upright and rigid, with his shoulders forced back and his head lifted up, so he looked down his nose in a demeaning way. He held his arms unnaturally by his side, lifted slightly away from his body, so they looked as if they were frozen like that, like he was a puppet. When he moved he seemed to glide along with a very mechanically woodenness moving no other part of his body but his legs.

This was another thing that made him seem so superior, the fact that he would pose in some elaborate stance, with his head pointed up and arms poised and he’d stay frozen like that until it was necessary to move again. He nearly only moved when needed to, and after that he would freeze again in a pose. This continuous pose then glide then pose the glide etc. really showed the tiresome pointless act that royalty like him always put on and how their whole life is really a show for others.

He spoke with a very posh, haughty voice, over pronouncing and dragging on all his words and at the breaking point of his voice so it was very high and strained but in a puffed up way.

Andrew Emerson wore a dreadful half mask so only the bottom part of his face was visible and he realised that especially exaggerated mouth expressions were needed, so he tightly pouted his mouth and when speaking moved it much more then needed. The mask added to Georgi Abashvili’s spiteful character and made him appear very unpleasant.

Andrew Emerson’s other character was Azdac who was very different to Georgi Abashvili. He was a lot more energetic and animated, and the most noticeable characteristic that he gave Azdac was the ability to almost never stay still. He would always be moving some part of his body, whether it would be a simple tapping of a finger or manic running around. He appeared very agitated and frenzied but in a friendly enthusiastic way, and his largely oversized actions clearly showed this. When speaking his hands would wave around wildly in the air, with his whole body tensed up and suspended, and knees bent as if ready for an explosion of reaction to something. His walk had a strong bounce in it and his feet always seemed to move quicker or more often then needed to, all these created a frenzy of attention capturing actions.

Andrew Emerson made Azdac enormously comedic and amusing, because of the cartoonist larger than life, unrealistic physical and vocal actions. He really used the whole range of his voice, sometimes talking in a low rumble than suddenly rising to a high pitched screech but never speaking in a neutral or monotone voice. It was also similar with his facial expressions, they were massively exaggerated and every single muscle in his faced was used to do this. For example when excited his eyebrows would raise to the top of his forehead, his eyes opened so wide they looked like large white balls popping out, his mouth would purse up into some odd shape, his nose would even express some sense of feeling. This gave him the cartoon look about him, and by putting so much energy and using every single essence of his body he really grabbed the attention of the audience and showed that despite being not so bright enthusiasm and a quick mind can get you far.

Bryan Pilkington played Prinze Kazbaki and although a very subdued character compared to the ones Andrew Emerson played, was still nearly just as effective. Bryan Pilkington’s acting for this character consisted of about ten very simple movements/actions which he just repeated over and over again and although if not done properly it could look very dull, this worked extremely well and suited Prinze Kazbaki’s uncomplicated person. Unlike the other two Royals who posed and did many elaborate elegant gestures, he came across as very maladroit and clumsy. He stood leaning on one hip, with one foot in front of the other, tummy sticking out, shoulders casually thrown back and his head pointed high up towards the ceiling. He had stuffing in place of his stomach giving him a very large belly, which exaggerated his posture and he almost looked like a Father Christmas type figure, very jolly and carefree.

His hands were always occupied because he was always eating something, normally pickled gherkins out of a paper bag, which were a rare delicacy in Russia so gave a good insight into Prinze Kazbaki’s luxurious life and explained the large belly. When Bryan Pilkington ate he stuffed the food selfishly into his wide mouth filling it so his cheeks were bulging and food was dripping from his lips onto the floor making him look exceedingly greedy and impolite. With one hand holding the paper bag out at a 90C angle and arm width away from his body the other hand would delicately pick out a gherkin, using only his thumb and index finger (little finger sticking provocatively out) and slowly lift it to his mouth without looking at it. This constant eating without any misgivings or sensitivity to the people around him, Prinze Kazbaki immediately came across and totally unaware, greedy and ignorant simply because of the life style he was brought up in.

When walking he appeared to glide, not in an elegant way but in a smooth casual way, as were most of his other movements. He was always very laidback and unhurried in everything he did, which as well as giving him a calm air about him made him seem quite dumb.

Bryan Pilkington wore an unsightly half mask, not as evil as the other royals but quite the opposite. It had large rosy cheeks and friendly eyes but still had something very unpleasant about it. He spoke very slowly and carelessly, just at the breaking point of his voice so it kept on changing between low and high, un-purposely. He sounded very haughty and conceited. The most chilling point of his character was his hollow, echoing repulsive laugh that he repeated over an over again and was a way of distancing the audience from his character.

Another character that Bryan Pilkington played was the Corporal, which was in some ways similar to Prinze Kazbeki, very arrogant and egocentric. He was extremely threatening and intimidating and appeared massively looming and dominant. He did this by mainly using his body by emphasizing but at the same time minimising his actions. Meaning that all his actions were very large and over stated, but at the same time uncomplicated and fairly few. When talking to someone he would often only move his head in their direction, keeping the rest of his body positively still, which gave the impression that he felt superior to others around him. He also had this mean hard stare, which he often used to look at the audience and this was very unsettling.

He stood very grounded, feet apart, hands hovering slightly away from his body giving the impression that his arms were very large. His shoulders slumped over lazily, and his head would be lowered so his eyes looked up forebodingly. As he walked he kept this same stance, and heavily moved his feet, rocking his body, from side to side.

He did not use his facial expressions to the full extent that he could have done, and mostly had a fairly neutral face with maybe a slight frown that closed up his eyes. He could have screwed up his face with a look of pure malevolence making him a lot more un-likable but the fact that he didn’t actually worked quite well. Because he never expressed any apparent emotion on his face, it made him almost mysterious and intriguing because it was never clear what he was thinking or would do next.

A very strong point that Bryan Pilkington has is the ability to use his voice to the advantage of the character. He was able to give the Corporal and thunderous booming voice, which dramatically added to his ominous character and without it he probably would have come across quite feeble. He also had a roaring hollow laugh that resembled one of a fat jolly man, but if looking at him when he did it seemed very false and wicked.

Vanessa Havell’s most significant part was Grusha Vachnadze, and she really gave her a full blooming character, which was very interesting to watch. She did this mainly by showing such embellished emotion through her face and voice, and although her body was not used and much as it could have been it did not appear to matter. She never once was neutral and the emotions that she did were incredibly moving to watch and really made a connection and understanding between her character and the audience. She used nearly every part of her face to portray how Grusha was feeling and she most effectively used her eyes and her eyebrows. Strange as it may sound, her large extent to which she moved her eyebrows really added to the effect. For example, they would lift up and widen her eyes, opening her face ad letting a look of pure pleasure beam out, or they could sink right down, creasing her forehead and wrinkling up her eyes so she squinted angrily out.

True emotion, even of an actor can be spotted in the eyes but Vanessa Havell acted so well that even her eyes gave nothing away and expressed what Grusha should be expressing. As there was so much eye contact between the actors and the audience, ‘eye acting’ worked so well because there was not hint of ‘Vanessa Havell’ to betray her character so made her all the more believable.

She spoke with a Scottish accent and had a very soft pure voice, but at the same time very clear and powerful. Every word spoken from her mouth was full with feeling and portrayed Grusha and very honest and wholesome, and made her very touching to listen to.

As mentioned earlier, her body was only used very basically, so she did not do many large exaggerated movements and seemed quite contained. Instead of this looking like bad acting, it looked more like it was part of Grusha’s uncomplicated shy character. She stood very composed and upright, and walked with the same unapparent grace. All her actions were very smooth and she moved very much like a dancer, flowing one thing into another making her very calming to watch and stopped the audience from getting too involved in her individual character, separation them and carrying them along with the story instead. As Grusha was such a likable character it would be very easy to favour her and be more interested in her then the other characters so this was important to distance the audience from getting attached.

The intimacy and love between Grusha Vachnadze and Simon Chachava was shown without hardly any passion or contact between the two but simply by strong eye contact and barely visible body actions. When with each other their bodies would directly face each other and would instantly straighten up as if with joy to be near their loved one. They would both suddenly be taken over with something that looked like excitement, impatience, shyness and happiness all mixed into one and almost turned into shy giggling children. They did this by holding them selves differently, arms hung awkwardly by their sides, leaning slightly in, and sometimes almost mirroring each other. They would move much more gently and slowly and even spoke with a dreamy air about them. However the most noticeable thing was the inability to take their eyes of the other even if they were on the other side of the stage. They would stare longingly and adoringly right into each other’s eyes with a content look over their face.

Stephen Povey played Simon Chachava and clearly presented him as a simple, thoroughly dependable and honest man, quite shy and timid. He had a great air of stillness about him, mainly because this is exactly what he seemed to do, stay fairly still. It was not a blank or neutral stillness as if he was doing absolutely nothing, but a proud stillness where he was still expressing emotion through his body, posture and face but doing it without the need to move around and I think this is a rare thing to be able to do well. For example when in high spirits he would lift his whole body up, pushing his shoulders back, lift his head up and beam out his state of bliss but would stay in the state of stillness that he would if he was expressing anger. He only moved when it was necessary, making him very simple and interesting to watch but never boring. He gave the impression of being very tranquil and thoughtful because of this stillness and this was one of the clear characteristics that Stephen Povey gave Simon.

When speaking a bit more life came into his body, as if this was the only time he would let emotion come out through movement. His used his hands to communicate waving them casually around as he spoke, and he would move his shoulders and head as appropriate.

His voice captured a lot of emotion in it, and sounded very sorrowful most of the time. He delivered many of his lines, as if his body was trying to cover his emotions up but his voice was giving them evidently away despite what Simon wanted to show. His voice was gentle, and smooth almost as if he was foreign, but without an accent but he spoke loudly often looking out towards the audience.

Stephen Povey, very similarly to Vanessa Havell, gave Simon an extremely expressive face and eyes. Nothing was hidden in his face and you could read it like a book, because the emotions were placed directly on his face. He often had a very apprehensive expression, eyebrows slanted up so he was slightly frowning, forehead creased, eyes somewhat hidden and mouth in a solid line. Of course the emotion was change considerable and with it so would all the muscles on his face. His eyes also never gave away anything to the audience and kept Simons emotions in them even when Stephen Povey would come right up to the audience and look deep into their eyes. This could have got the audience quite involved with Simon but the stillness that he had managed to detach the audience and keep them on track with the story.

The last actress was Ruth Connell who played Natella Abashvili who was strikingly similar to Georgi Abashvili the obvious difference being that she was and played a woman. She held herself very upright and rigid, with her shoulders pushed back, neck stretched and head pointed high up. He arms were rounded forcefully by her side and held away from her body, frozen in that position as if made out of wood. He whole body looked as if it was permanently tense, and she looked extremely unnatural and uncomfortable. She moved very mechanically and dance like, and appeared to glide along with a stilted grace. She walked by pointing her foot, stretching out her leg in front of her then pulling her body forward to join where she had placed the foot, and then doing the same with the other leg. When turning she would halt, twist in the direction she wanted to turn to and then continue flicking her head and her cloak as she went. This continuous jolty but smooth movement made her seem robotic and almost un-real. She also seemed quite cat like, in the way that she prowled around as if hunting for someone to pounce unexpectedly on.

The most effective and noticeable thing was the constant movement, pose, movement, pose etc. She’d glide along and then suddenly throw her body into a passionate freeze, head stuck up, back straight and rigid, with her arms flung up and poised, fingers clawed and eyes staring sharply ahead. She would then stay like that until necessary to move when it would be guaranteed that she would take a similar pose only moments later. The pointless posing showed Natella’s vanity and superiority to others around her and also was an insight into meaningless life.

As she wore a hideous mask, which strongly added to Natella’s malicious character her face only the bottom part of her face was visible and really exaggerated what she did with what could be seen for this reason. Her mouth was always tightly pouted, so the corners pointed nastily down and when she spoke she moved her mouth a lot more then required, so she strongly over pronounced her words. She spoke with a very shrill conceited voice, lengthening her words and taking her time to say only a short sentence, as if she wanted attention on herself as long as possible. The pitch and volume of her voice would often be suddenly thrown up erratically, not for any apparent reason making her in some ways quite unpredictable.

The last thing that topped off Natella Abashvili’s cruel and vicious character was the violent hissing that repeated over and over again. If Natella Abashvili got upset or angry with someone Ruth Connell would fiercely turn at them and hiss at them, screwing up her mouth and cheeks intensely as if she was a snake. The fact that she had a long black braid hanging at the back of her mask, that’s somewhat resembled a snake, only accentuated this.

Kirstie Davis very interestingly and originally directed this production of the Caucasian Chalk Circle. They chose to use a very small stage area with the audience closely surrounding them, and because of this they were able to do many things not normally done on stage. The actors often went behind, through, in and the audience always talking to them as if telling story. Props were often handed to and then taken back from the audience and the actors regularly went right up close to the audience. The unusual involvement between the actors and audience broke down the barrier that audiences often have when watching a play, which normally stops them from getting into to story, and allowed to almost feel in it rather then just a person viewing it.

The stage and more was widely used, so there was a lot of rapid and a wide variety of movement never boring the audience by staying in one spot. The actors used height widely, by standing on boxes, each other and climbing on the set at the back of the stage, using it as a bridge.

Props were minimally and resourcefully used and the impressive thing being that they were not afraid to be inventive with how and where the props were received from. For example many of the props were taken out of large boxes on stage that were used for many different things like tables, beds, chairs etc. When thought about this could look incredibly stupid, an actor taking out a prop (like a jacket) so blatantly out of something on stage that isn’t meant to contain what it has, and then even more ridiculously putting it on and then suddenly changing character. But this is exactly what they did and the audience willingly accepted it and it worked exceedingly well.

Another thing creatively done was the baby. It was simply a small white cushion, resembling nothing like human child, no clothes or limbs, and the actor holding the baby would merely make a screeching baby cry, without moving their mouth and the audience immediately knew what the cushion was meant to be, without questioning why they did it like that.

The audience so easily soaked up all these imaginative things because they were done so confidently and surely, and this was a good example of how directors should not be afraid to experiment.

The costumes were very basic and old fashioned but were fairly important in the understanding of which characters the actors were playing, as they each had a number of different parts. All the actors wore black trousers and top, and on top of this they would put fundamental bits of costume on, simply to give the audience a better idea of whom they were paying and the status of who that person was. For example Governors and the Prinze wore very elaborate dazzling red robes, which were trimmed with white lining, and looked very expensive and luxurious because they were made out of silky material and were the only bright colours throughout the play. Which showed their rich status.

Grusha wore an old looking patterned dress with a brown corset and a faded green shawl. This showed off her femininity but also that she was not very well off. Similarly the other peasants wore dull coloured and old looking clothes. The soldiers wore large brown or green trench coats, which made them, appear as massive looming shadows, adding to the terrorizing effect they had on the other characters and the audience.

Sound effects, music and song were used beautifully and effectively throughout the production, directed by Andrew Friesner. Loud clanging, bells and drumming was used for tense moments or to create a sense of panic and chaos. Instruments like the violin and the accordion were strikingly played to set certain moods alongside the acting and the actors own voices were frequently used to sing songs that narrated the story or just stirring melodies. The haunting harmonies that the voices created really moved the audience by evoking emotion in them, and effectively assisted the actors.

The Watford Palace Theatre successfully performed the Caucasian Chalk Circle in its best way, a suspenseful, creative production in the simple but original form of a satirical comedy. The play is too comic and knowing to strike that note of severity and preaching would have made an audience overly comfortable, as if requires them to merely sit back and quietly take orders. So To a modern audience it was kept demanding with unique and interesting use of stage, voice and song, regular character changes and the impressive ‘one-to-one’ interaction that the actors had with the audience and while doing this it still brought across the strong messages of justice, what you deserve will come to you.

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