Thursday, 4 August 2016

The Caucasian Chalk Circle - Black Swan State Theatre Company with The National Theatre of China (1 August 2016)

During a time of rebellion a servant girl rescues the baby of the deposed Governor and flees into the mountains leaving behind her beloved, a soldier off to fight in the ensuing war. She eventually reaches her brother’s farm and safety where she raises the baby as her own, now trapped in a marriage of (in)convenience. Two years later and they are discovered with the Governor’s wife demanding that the baby be returned. A trial is convened presided over by Azdak, a man elevated to the lofty position of judge in the most unusual of circumstances. He devises an unexpected method by which to decide custody of the child.    

This sumptuously visual and aurally rich production is the first international collaboration for Black Swan in conjunction with The National Theatre of China. Written by German playwright Bertolt Brecht, directed by Dr Wang Xiaoying, and featuring an Australian ensemble it is a fascinating mixture of storytelling styles and culture. Exquisite costumes (Zhao Yan) and masks (Prof Zhang Huaxiang) are matched as a highlight by the superb accompaniment of local indigenous musicians on guitar/vocals and percussion (Dr Clint Bracknell and Arunachala). Australian accents abound including the broadest of Strine as the servant girl, Grusha (Alex Malone), encounters a variety of colourful characters along her journey.

There is a meeting of three distinctive styles – a form of Chinese theatre known as Beijing Opera; the traditional oral storytelling of indigenous Australians as embodied by Lynette Narkle, the ‘Old Woman’ who sets the scene; and the play within a play construct by Brecht as part of his ‘epic theatre’ movement.

Added to this is the inclusion of songs that inform the narrative and move it forward in impressive style. The lyrics are projected as surtitles in both English and, as I was informed by the couple sitting next to me, modern Chinese characters. The backdrops were deceptively effective – three layers of jagged curtains that when lit represented the mountains and other locations with a real sense of depth. My well informed fellow audience members also remarked how reminiscent this was of Chinese oil paintings.

As you enter the theatre, the company are warming up in their blacks which included Black Swan t-shirts! Two racks of costumes are onstage as well as a rack of masks. Lighting rigs are visible on the fringes of the performance space, indeed you could clearly see into the wings from my vantage point. A microphone is positioned stage right; the two musicians stage left. All the mechanics and devices of a theatrical production are boldly laid out in plain sight. Then something interesting happened – the normal pre-show babble died down with no discernible signal or change in status from the actors as if suddenly there was a shared expectation from the audience. The actors continued to warm up vocally and physically in a hushed arena. Then we are thrust into the tumult as the story begins...

This melange of highly distinctive styles instead of competing with each other somehow melded into, oftentimes, quite an exhilarating production. Set design (Richard Roberts) was simple and effective with two arches – one a larger traditional Chinese arch; the other a smaller bamboo construction used to signify doorways – wheeled into place by stagehands who would occasionally stay onstage briefly as observers during a scene. There was judicious use of a wooden revolve in the centre of the stage. Chairs were used to represent everything from a rickety bridge over a mountain pass to the sparse furnishings of various abodes.

To the performances and Alex Malone in her Black Swan debut was outstanding as Grusha. There was a jauntiness in her interactions with the soldier (James Sweeny) Grusha falls for; hesitation and uncertainty as the Governer’s wife (Caitlin Beresford-Ord) becomes more concerned with her wardrobe than her baby as the Ironshirts threaten; a softness with the baby Michael; and real tenacity as the character survives relentless pursuit and then asserts her claim to be the rightful mother. Malone also has a pleasant singing voice that was used to good effect sporadically throughout. Most importantly though, given the comical and over-exaggerated characters Grusha meets, it’s a totally grounded performance undertaken with great confidence.

Others to stand out – Steve Turner in a variety of roles, each given distinctive flourishes that made his presence memorable; Adam Booth especially as a lascivious Ironshirt who caused the skin crawl with some wildly inappropriate innuendo, gleefully delivered; and James Sweeny was a forthright soldier that matched Malone in crafting a realistic portrayal that worked well in moments of tenderness and in disappointment when his Simon discovers Grusha is married. Beresford-Ord made for a regal and disdainful Governor’s wife while Luke Hewitt was given characters most often flirting with caricature, deploying almost Barry Humphries style vocal emphasis at times.

Then there’s Geoff Kelso whose Azdak takes over as the focal point in the second half. He stumbled over his lines a few times during the second preview which will no doubt iron itself out but his judge is an archetypal Aussie larrikin that would be right at home in something like The Castle.  

The icing on this theatrical layer cake is the musical accompaniment. Bracknell has an earthy voice that was a perfect fit for the songs creating an enormous amount of atmosphere. His guitar playing was excellent and the percussion by Arunachala was equally evocative or menacing as required. There is a superbly crafted turning point that is enhanced by song and performance when Grusha makes the fateful decision to take the baby. It’s a wonderful synthesis of all the theatrical elements in this show’s formidable arsenal.

There were a couple of things that jarred – the number of cases Azdak hears after his appointment was perhaps one too many in establishing his unique bona fides; and some of the more exaggerated Australian accents were too incongruous even in the context of the artifices established.

The overall impression though is one of appreciation and admiration for this unique staging of Brecht’s masterpiece.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is on at the State Theatre Centre until 14 August.

*Photos by Philip Gostelow except the masks photo courtesy of James Sweeny

No comments:

Post a comment