BERTOLT Brecht was a man of ideas, but he was wise enough never to sacrifice entertainment to his message.
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Translator Alistair Beaton notes: “Brecht’s plays are full of vigorous and bawdy humanity,” and both abound in the Lyceum’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, presented in modern dress, against a “backstage-style” set where props –and actors– perform multiple tasks. It fizzes with hectic energy, but it’s a game of two uneven halves.
The Prologue opens with peasants fighting about land distribution, a dispute resolved according to the belief that “The land should go to whoever can make the best use of it.”
Then musician Claire McKenzie straps on her electric guitar and takes over as narrator, singing us through the play within a play. Alas, the sound mixer does a tremendous disservice to a talented cast, making it difficult to hear dialogue throughout the first half.
We meet a corrupt Governor and his vacuous wife, and see them overthrown. In the melee, baby Michael, is left behind, rescued by Grusha, the kitchen maid (a winning Amy Manson). She heads north to her brother, fighting the elements and renegade soldiers en route. Once there she is forced into marriage, derailing her chance for true love – but she’ll do anything to protect the child.
It’s worth noting that Adam Bennett’s stellar puppetry brings the baby to life.
With its rock concert vibe, unsubtle topicality (echoes of the Abu Graib, anyone?) and pointless gender-bending, the production feels as if someone read a book on how to stage a Brecht play and followed it to the letter.
Despite strong performances, it has the whiff of good-natured AmDram.
Post interval, everything changes. We go back two years to follow the story of Azdak, played gorgeously by Christopher Fairbank.
Fairbank is left to work in comparative stillness, and the sound issues evaporate, allowing his words to ring clear.
We discover how he rescued the Governor and became a judge, and see him called upon to decide whose child Michael really is. Does he belong to his biological parent, the Governor’s negligent wife, or to nurturing, sacrificing Grusha?
As Brecht says, “Someone has to be the one who helps,” and in this universe helpers are rewarded, though not without enduring suffering first. Making them a bit like this beleaguered cast.
Run ends 14 March