The Caucasian Chalk Circle | Black Swan State Theatre Company and National Theatre of ChinaLeft – Alex Malone and James Sweeny. Cover – Caitlin Beresford-Ord, Ali van Reeken, James Sweeny, Kenneth Ransom and Steve Turner. Photos – Philip Gostelow

Let me begin by first stating that I absolutely adored this production. In a word, I could only describe this performance as a perfect expression of sprezzatura.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht, is a story derived from a classical Chinese legend called The Circle of Chalk. It tells the story of a young girl, Grusha, in a time of war, dealing with love, loss and the prospect of being a mother… I could say more, but I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise.

This production marks the first time that Black Swan has collaborated with another theatre company internationally. Dr Wang Xiaoying, of the National Theatre of China has been working on this collaboration with Black Swan for the past two years. The depth of thought that has occurred during that time is evident in every aspect of the performance. To say that this is an example of East meets West would be a wild over-simplification of what this production represents. In the director’s own words, “this production is an ancient Chinese story, written by a classic German playwright, performed by an Australian troupe, whom invited (him), a Chinese director.” The product of the collaboration is simply a joy to behold.

The play itself is constructed around a form of theatre which Brecht himself devised, and named, called “Epic Theatre”. Epic Theatre is designed to alienate the audience from the characters on stage, encouraging them to be reflective rather than empathetic. Brecht’s principle permeates every aspect of the design of this play, yet it is executed with such simplicity, and subtlety, that one would be forgiven for not noticing it at all.

The theme of the design is explicitly Chinese. The set, designed by Richard Roberts is simultaneously an expression of a Chinese landscape, and Brecht’s principle of Epic Theatre. Nothing is ever stationary for long, everything is in motion and nothing is wasted. The creation of mountainous terrain with nothing but a set of three layered white curtains, while simple in its execution, is truly mesmerising, even when not in motion. Indeed, the movement of the curtains is difficult to even notice.

The tradition of masks in Beijing Opera is brought into this production with great success. Not only do the masks add to the Chinese design of the production, they also contribute effectively to the execution of Brecht’s principles of Epic Theatre. Much like the western tradition of Comedia Del Arte, the masks are used to convey personas and type characters through symbol and colour. Without knowing the complex history and details of the use of masks in Chinese theatre, the masks in this play, designed by Prof Zhang Huaxiang, are sublimely evocative and immediately identifiable.

The costumes, created by designer Zhao Yan, complete the play’s trend of refined simplicity, providing recognisable identifiers, without being a distraction.

Brecht’s original script contains a number of songs, however, no original score exists to accompany them. The music set to Brecht’s songs here, by Dr Clint Bracknell, is somewhat unusual, given the uniformity of the rest of the play. Bracknell’s musical accompaniment throughout is utterly impeccable, whether simply atmospheric, or backing a song. The musical design seemed to waver somewhere between church hymns and the backing track for a 1960s cowboy film. If this alienated audiences somewhat, then Bracknell’s execution of Brecht’s Epic Theatre principles was successful.

Of course a good production rides on the strength of its acting troupe, and in this case, they certainly don’t disappoint. Presenting a combination of western and eastern acting styles, the quality of acting presented in this production was absolutely superb. From the moment the cast started warming up on stage, the energy of the performers simply didn’t drop until the fall of the final bow.

My special remarks in this case go to: Geoff Kelso, whose performance as Azdak demanded the attention of the entire audience. Alex Malone, a successful performance of Grusha is pivotal to the success of this play, the role could not have been performed more perfectly. And Adam Booth, his dynamism, while not so overt so as to steal a scene, seemed to enrich the energy of the stage simply by being there.

This is a production not to be missed. It would be a true tragedy to pass up the opportunity to experience such a vibrant international theatre experiment right in our own city.

Black Swan State Theatre Company in collaboration with the National Theatre of China presents
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
by Bertolt Brecht

Directed by Dr Wang Xioaying

Venue: Heath Ledger Theatre | State Theatre Centre of WA
Dates: July 30 – August 14, 2016

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