Brighton Year-Round 2023
There’s a symmetry in this 75th anniversary production of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Though written in 1944, it was translated by Brecht’s friends Eric and Maja Bentley, and first performed in 1948 in English by students at Northfield, Minnesota. And here again it’s tackled by a nine-strong student ensemble of Brighton’s ACT at Lantern, directed by Joanna Rosenfeld, till December 15th.
There’s also a vibrancy, almost festive spirit in this production of Brecht’s final major play. An exhilarating student production
Directed by Joanna Rosenfeld, Musician Richard Marris (from The Shadow Triggers) Set Design and Costume Design by the Cast, Lighting, Sound Production Stage and Tech Designer Erin Burbridge.
Till December 15th
There’s a symmetry in this 75th anniversary production of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Though written in 1944, it was translated by Brecht’s friends Eric and Maja Bentley, and first performed in 1948 in English by students at Northfield, Minnesota. And here again it’s tackled by a nine-strong student ensemble of Brighton’s ACT at Lantern, directed by Joanna Rosenfeld till December 15th.
There’s also an exuberance, almost festive spirit in this production of Brecht’s final major play.
The Lantern’s studio theatre being intimate the horseshoe audience arrangement can enjoy a vibrant group often dancing, threading through Brecht’s narrative. Choreographer Juna Gankofer, also a cast member, matches what often looks like a mini chorus-line to a variety of pop-songs, also broken up into small routines: particularly thee two soldiers forced (by Corporal Inna Metlina) to dance singing a deliciously inappropriate number, repurposed (Annabelle Turton and Juna Gankofer).
Though the extent of this surprised me, it consistently energised the production and scores some bullseyes: as well as keeping with the commedia-dell-arte feel of Rosenfeld’s company.
There’s many moments like that, beaded engagingly through on guitar by musician Richard Marris (from The Shadow Triggers). Much is told in rhyme consummately delivered, sometimes sung, by Gemma Carter who as Singer both keeps up the momentum of this 2 hours 50 production; and offers moments of stillness and pivot.
A group of Soviet farmers of both goat and a fruit collectives return to war-torn pastures after beating the Nazis back in Soviet Russia. They disagree over who should be dominant. One side suggests telling a fable of how judgement was reached, to enable the farmers to work out a compromise. We don’t see them again but are plunged into a fable (in fact a 14th century Chinese play from which Brecht developed a poem, then this) with Turkish and Georgian names. It’s in fact close to the Judgment of Solomon.
A Governor’s palace is overthrown and he (Annabelle Turton, deliciously blinkered) executed. His wife selfish Juna Gankofer (a shriek of entitlement at every stage) is more concerned with what dress to flee with and leaves her child inadvertently behind in the charge of Grusha – Elisabeth Thaarup, poised expressive and often cowed but proving Grusha’s defiant too when cornered. Thaarup carries her role throughout with a variety of pitch and affect, despair, defiance and ultimately compassion. As C Day Lewis wrote “the love is in the letting go”; but it’s that which wins Grusha everything.
Grusha bonds with the child in the moment of accepting her suitor Simon’s proposal (Adrian Pel, a model of shrewdness and bafflement) before he rushes off to war. But there’s those who want the baby dead.
Grusha’s adventures in flight, her meetings with selfish and helpful strangers whilst being pursued by the ‘Ironshirts’ who want to kill the baby, culminates in her finding brief refuge with her cowardly brother. Who arranges for her to wed an apparently dying peasant: who miraculously revives. It’s at this point Simon fetches up, shocked, and so do the Ironshirts.
But Grusha’s bonded with the child. She’s on trial. But it’s no ordinary trial. We’re also told how Azdak (Tyrell Otoo), a drunk who’s also wily, came to be Judge. His act of voluntary contrition for saving a Grand Duke not only wins him the Judging job, but also exculpates him when the forces of reaction close in. Otoo’s at his considerable best in the corrupt, venal, funny but ultimately wise, compassionate champion of the poor.
As Brecht tells us finally, Azdak’s reign was seen as a brief golden age for the poor. It’s he who causes a circle to be drawn, ordering the rival mothers to tug at a terrified Inna Metlina – that pursuing Corporal and here superb in childish terror.
There’s fine work by two ‘Doctors’ who take up many other roles, but chiefly as excellent singers: Katherine Hall in a firmly-projected soprano with a powerful, flexible line, and Dominic Hart’s cut-through baritone. They’re both ideally clear and carry the singing. All in the ensemble deserve credit in both aplomb and variety of attack; though these two are for me already consummate. I’d add Thaarup’s acting for her consistent engagement in all Grusha’s emotions.
The look’s both improv and cabaret. Set – mainly the Lantern’s black wooden boxes, a few ropes, clothes, trunks and little else, with costumes including tin helmets – are sourced by the cast. Most strikingly the whiteface and black eyeliner donned by all lend that touch of alienation as celebration, a mix of attic trunk and Pierrot makeup. As ever at the Lantern, lighting, sound, stage and tech designer Erin Burbridge lets everything from disco to tenebrous play over the ensemble; just as remarkable sounds like ice cracking in spring are distinctly audible.
This is an exhilarating student production, and Rosenfeld and her company must be congratulated. I hope there’ll be more from this source. It’s only on three nights, but there are a few seats left.