IT HAS been many years since Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle has been seen in Galway so this new production, by NUIG and Core Theatre College, is very welcome – all the more so as director Max Hafler and his young cast do a great job.
Brecht wrote the play in 1944, while WWII was still raging, and it powerfully portrays a world of sudden upheaval and violence where people do all they can to survive amid the chaos. It is also a world of widespread cruelty and exploitation and yet, against the odds, goodness and justice can also be found and endure. The play can equally pertain to the tragic scenes we see in our own time in Syria and the Middle East so that it is just as topical now as when first written.
Loosely located in a Russian setting, the play opens with an Easter morning in a village where we meet a haughty governor and his glitzy wife, with their baby son, amid an array of flunkies and lowly subjects. The day’s routine is exploded by a sudden violent coup which unleashes panic and slaughter. The governor is killed and his wife flees, abandoning her baby in the confusion. A young peasant woman, Grusha, takes pity on the child and brings it with her as she makes her own escape from the war zone. Pursued by Ironshirt guards, Grusha heads toward a mountain village where she can find refuge. There are dramatic scenes such as when they cross a fragile bridge, or when the Ironshirts catch up with them. While the world of fear and brutality is vividly rendered there are also moments of lively comedy such as a wedding where the groom is literally on his death bed.
The story switches back to the village Grusha abandoned and shows how the resourceful, and wittily eloquent waster Azdak becomes judge amid all the chaos of the times. For all that he is self-serving, capricious, and fond of his wine, Azdak does have an innate sense of justice and regard for the downtrodden which contrasts starkly with the attitudes of the ruling nobles.
The play reaches its climax when Grusha and her child are captured and brought before Azdak’s court. Here, the returned governor’s wife, and expensive lawyers, demands that her son, Michael, be restored. Grusha argues that it is she who has raised the child and she who best loves him and she should be permitted to keep him. Your reviewer will refrain from spoiler alerts as to how the case unfolds!
Max Hafler gets great performances throughout from his talented and energetic cast of fourteen, most of whom depict multiple characters. While there are times when the vocal delivery can be a bit ‘shouty’ overall this is a strong and compelling production. The central roles of Grusha and Azdak are played by Paige Louter and Jérémie Cyr-Cooke, both of whom excel. There are also eye-catching performances from Aoife Corry as the governor’s wife and Cillian Browne as Grusha’s beloved, Simon.
The proceedings are further enriched by the music and songs that punctuate the action, and credit here is due to composer Katarina Kavanova. Hats off and a pat on the back all round to everyone who made the show possible.