With Adam Mitchell directing, Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle is an energetic, strong and highly entertaining production. Created by Hotbed, the emerging artists ensemble associated with Black Swan Theatre Company, the show is dark, gothic, and absorbing.
If you have any previous knowledge of Brecht you know to expect the unexpected. A Brecht performance has the potential to change direction at any moment, and here the audience is thrown a few curveballs. For starters, there are six actors playing at least 26 roles, causing them to run off and on into a new role frequently.
I was impressed at the ease in which the cast members moved between roles. In a lesser production, it would be all too easy to get lost and forget who was who and where they stood in the plot. In this performance, the characters and scenes were each distinct, tightly controlled moments that moved the story along.
Brecht’s script has a tendency to rhyme, creating a melodic, paced makeup. This was emphasized in an early scene involving two soldiers. They spent the entire scene marching, and the script flowed through the repetitious thumping of feet.
No Brecht would be complete without random moments of song. In The Caucasian Chalk Circle, the Singer replaces the more traditional narrator, joined by the cast at times. For the most part it was slow and haunting, but the audience was also treated to over the top cabaret style trite. The hidden singer and musician (who I assume was composer Steve Hearne, although it is not specifically stated in the program) provided a haunting melodic undertone.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a true ensemble piece, and it would be hard to choose a standout performer from the talented group. Having said that, I must make mention of Amanda Woodhams. Playing the largest single role of Grusha, this is Woodhams first professional theatre role, having just graduated from high school last year. Her portrayal of Grusha was perfect, capturing the steeliness of the characters determination. Her emotions ran from loved up servant, to despondent runaway, to defiant in the face of injustice.
The other five performers have equally bright futures. Anita Erceg played the Dukes wife Natella with suitable distain, ensuring the audience instantly disliked her. Jo Morris played the most varied roles with grace, from two doctors (at once) to older woman to sleazebag lawyer.
Ben Russell had a wonderful turn as a ‘cheap’ monk who provided one of the funnier scenes in the play, whilst Thomas Papathanassiou injected tender love into his portrayal of Simon, then literally turned around and oozed evil as the Fat Prince.
Finally, Brendan Ewing had a star turn as Azdak the drunken judge, who has a vast part after the interval. He conveyed the judge’s unorthodox rulings, and essentially the moral of the play, with relish and great success.
The set by Brad Reid was versatile and multifunctional, changing as the scenes progressed. It consisted primarily of two enormous movable lattice style screens. The lattice however, was created with various furniture pieces – a bed head, a door, an abacus. This created a set that was continuously changing and utilised by the actors.
The lighting deviated from a traditional Brecht (who tended to use harsh, unnatural lighting). Designed by Andrew Earle, he used side lighting and dim, earthy tones to create a moody and dark atmosphere. Simple multifunctional costumes (also by Reid) that were primarily black, let the actors change between roles with ease and supplemented the gothic look.
The show is reminiscent of the works of internationally renowned Kneehigh Theatre (UK). There are similar dark and gothic elements in this production, and a similar sense of theatrical anarchy and theatre exploration. I got the sense that the cast worked exceptionally hard at creating this piece, and had great fun doing it.
The show is almost completely sold out, even with additional shows added. If you have a ticket – lucky you. Enjoy this gothic tale of morals. If you don’t have one, beg borrow or steal to get in. The members of this ensemble are the next big things.
Black Swan Theatre Company presents
The HotBed Ensemble
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
By Berthold Brecht
In a version by Frank McGuinness
Venue: Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA), Perth Cultural Centre, James Street, Northbridge
Dates: 28 Feb – 15 Mar
Tickets: $20 / $15
Bookings: BOCS on 9484 1133
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