For anyone who has studied drama pre-university, the terms “Brecht” and “Student” being mentioned in the same sentence conjures up images of dodgy placards and awkward fourth wall breaking (just me? ok…). Luckily, Jesse Jones and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduates’ take on the classic The Caucasian Chalk Circle couldn’t be further from that. It manages to simultaneously capture and challenge the essence of Brecht, with all its disorientation, political relevance and courage.
From the offset, this play firmly sets itself in contemporary Bristol. Brecht’s original framed narrative of two Soviet Union community groups arguing over a plot of land is disregarded in favour of a community meeting about gentrification being interrupted by some travelling performers. The words “hamilton house” spring to mind. Frank McGuinness’s adaptation takes Brecht’s political intentions and makes them modern and relevant, in a really humorous, non-confrontational way. These travelling performers frame the narrative of the piece through a gorgeous score composed by Jack Drewry, combining song, instrumentation and narration, which feels really intimate and gig theatre-esque.
After that, it’s a whirlwind. For the most part, the quick stylistic change from a rural fairytale folk story, to a sexualised, colourful courtroom, to an extraordinarily tender fight between mothers for baby Michael, works well in keeping the audience aware they are watching a play - just before we are allowed to become too emotionally invested or attached, the form shifts and the play reminds us of its own theatricality. This is all helped by slick choreography by director Jesse Jones, who crafts really interesting physicality and movement sequences which are executed well by the ensemble. These stylistic shifts also showcase the actors’ strengths. Marine Laurencelle and James Costello Ladanyi are sensitive, moving and playing off one another beautifully as Grusha and Simon, separated by war. Alice Birbara gives a captivating performance - her Azdak is indulgent, wild and fiercely moral. Laurencelle and Freja Zeuthen sharply contrast against each other in the final moments of the play - Grusha’s innocence and compassion against Natella’s absence and materialism. All these moments are supported by a solid ensemble, who, aside from odd opening night teething problems, support the story in a vivid, energetic way.
While I appreciate the abundance of styles and the fast pace of the show, occasionally it comes at the expense of following the story. This eases up as the play progresses but for the first third of act one, some of the more complicated political backstory is pretty much lost on me - perhaps the disorientation and alienation one expects when watching Brecht taken slightly too far. Luckily, such moments are minimal.
The talent of this year’s MFA professional acting graduates can’t be ignored. There are no weak links, and the play excels in demonstrating the strength of the collective cast whilst giving everyone an opportunity to shine.