The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Te Whaea National Dance and Drama Centre, 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wellington

22/10/2009 - 31/10/2009

Production Details

Jump into Brecht’s puzzle box of social dilemmas with this year’s Toi Whakaari graduation production directed by Christian Penny.

This is an interactive promenade production from our final year students. A raw and exciting example of epic theatre; the nature of justice and an insight into the glories and defects of human nature.

A servant girl sacrifices everything to protect a child abandoned in the heat of civil war. Order restored, she is made to confront the child’s birth mother in a legal contest over who deserves to keep the child. The judge calls on an ancient tradition – the chalk circle – to resolve the dispute. Who wins? Let the child decide.

"Brecht’s play is Shakespearean in its scale and tone. Scene are generated on a bare stage with the merest of indicators and the humanity revealed by the fusion of action and politics. It moves from one extreme to the other in the blink of an eye. No shift is too daring for him. Brecht was a passionate advocate for a more just world. I think it is a voice we are getting ready to hear again. I really believe what Brecht said of his own work. He wanted an audience to "think and feel" not to sit merely on the edge of their seats, "thrilled"; to be witness to the event that theatre makes possible." – Christian Penny

PLEASE NOTE seating is stools and pillows. You choose your seat and put it where you want depending on what you want.

This show contains full frontal nudity.
Directed by Christian Penny (Head of Directing)
Set Design by Brian King (Design Graduate)
Costume Design by Emma Ransley (Design Student)
Cast – final year acting students
Children from Island Bay School and Kelburn Normal School.

Where: Te Whaea: National Dance & Drama Centre, 11 Hutchison Road, Newtown
When: 7pm, Thu 22 – Sat 31 October
(no shows 26 & 27 October)
Schools’ matinee Wed 28 @ 12.30pm 
Price: $15 / $10

"We need a type of theatre which not only releases the feelings, insights and impulses possible within the particular historical field of human relations in which the action takes place, but employs and encourages those thoughts and feelings which help transform the field itself."

Doctor 1, Ludovica, Singer, Stableman:  Veronica Brady
Simon, Soldier:  Tim Carlsen
Landlord, Jessup's Mother:  Emma Draper
Governor, Monk:  Dan Hannah
Grusha:  Juanita Hepi
Cook, Aniko:  Romy Hooper
Jessup, Merchant, Adjutant:  Guy Langford
Nephew, Merchant Woman, Lawyer:  Sophie Lindsay
Fat Prince:  Katherine McGill
Azdak:  Shadon Meredith
Shauva, Adjutant:  Suli Moa
Natella - Governor's Wife:  Amelia Reid
Corporal, Refugee:  Emmet Skilton
Soldier, Innkeeper, Architect:  Kay Smith
Old Milkman, Doctor 2, Stable lad:  Jessica Smith
Lavrenti, Bandit:  Matariki Whatarau
Old Woman, Architect, Peasant:  Cian White
Farmer, Nanny, Lawyer:  Aroha White

Assistant Director:  Julian Pellizzaro
Costume Designer:  Emma Ransley
Set Designer:  Brian King
Lighting Designer:  Austin Mather
Sound Designer:  Maria Deere
Production Manager:  Ellis Thorpe
Asst. Production Manager:  Monique Webster
Stage Manager:  Ellen Walsh
Deputy Stage Manager:  Ricky Beirao
Assistant Stage Managers:  Sean Hawkins, Amber Maxwell
Sound Assistant & Operator:  Tim Nuttall
Lighting Assistant & Operator:  Alana Kelly
Costume Supervisors:  Eliza Thompson-Munn, Tara Low
Set Construction Manager:  Eddie Fraser
Properties Master:  Eleanor Cooke
Set Builders/Props Assistants:  Morgan Whitfield, Rebekah Mora, Richard Child, Sophie Dowson
Child Co-ordinators:  Nga Paki Emery (MTA Student), Amelia Reid
Costumiers:  Jane Boocock, Lindsay Bloomfield, Kelly Nichol, Helle Rosenberg, Kaarin Macaulay
Design Assistants:  Nina Smith - Stevens, Alice Hill, Stacey Brummer, Hannah Sutherland, Alex Mann
Music Supervision:  Jullian Raphael
Musical Directors:  Sophie Lindsay, Matariki Whatarau
Ensemble Coaching:  Romy Hooper
Puppet Coaching:  Kay Smith, Emmett Skilton
Movement/Running/Bridge Coaching:  Aroha White
Production Co-ordinator:  Derek Simpson
Vocal Coach:  D'Arcy Smith
Marketing Manager:  Jo Richardson

Irreverent take on a German classic

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 27th Oct 2009

In recent years Brecht’s plays have been seen in Germany as boring old classics in much the same way as Bernard Shaw’s plays are seen in the UK and probably here. Christian Penny’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle as the Drama School’s Graduation Production 2009 attempts to undermine this perception with an irreverent, knockabout post-modern production in which Brecht’s famous alienation effect is easily achieved because the zaniness of what happens on stage arouses no sympathy from the audience for the characters.

The play’s prologue is performed in the large foyer of Toi Whakaari with the audience standing about watching Georgian villagers discussing with a government official the resettlement of a Caucasian village and valley after the Nazis had been defeated. The villagers invite the official, who hopes it won’t be too long and it won’t preach (he’s obviously not heard of Brecht), to watch a play derived from the Chinese, The Chalk Circle.

The audience then enters the theatre and is told to take a cushion or stool and sit anywhere. As the play is performed on rostra, in-the-round and all over the place sections of the audience have to keep making way for the actors and one is left looking for somewhere else to sit or at least see the action. Brecht’s alienation effect is again achieved, even if it makes the story-line hard to follow.

Freed from their Georgian accents in the prologue (valley became an amusing ‘walley’) the graduating actors then had to cope with a mishmash of settings (an inexplicable Lighting Direct-like display), props and outlandish costumes. The characters are "presented" by the actors with enthusiasm and without subtlety, but as always on these occasions team work is to the fore as is the singing which was magnificent at the conclusion of The Chalk Circle when the Lord of Misrule, Azdak, reunites young Michael with his true mother.

This was one of those evenings in the theatre when the production becomes more important than the play and the play’s intent is obfuscated, lost in the fun and the determination to be different, cheeky and destabilizing. 
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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Was that the earth moving?

Review by John Smythe 23rd Oct 2009

There is no doubt the actors about to graduate from Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School are brimming with talent and enthusiasm. In their Go Solo shows they proved themselves as individuals. Now, in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, they shape up as an excellent ensemble: fully integrated and responsive to each other in their collective endeavour.

Brecht’s prologue finds a gathering of peasants from two kolchos (collective farm) villages meeting to determine whether the goat breeders or the fruit growers should resettle the Caucasian mountain village and valley that have been badly damaged by Nazi tanks. (The play was written in 1944, when Brecht was living in the USA, and was premiered in a student production of Eric Bently’s English translation, at a Minnesota university in 1948.) It is the fruit-growers’ plan for a massive irrigation scheme that wins out in the end and the play that follows, adapted from an old Chinese parable, is offered because it has some connection to their problem.

I have always felt that to remain true to Brecht’s intentions, his prologue could/should be replaced with one that is directly relevant to the time and/or place of each production. Certainly today’s world and modern New Zealand offer plenty of debates about the ownership and use of specific tracts of land, not that land has to be the issue; it could be waterways or airspace.

This adaptation, by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness, seems to trim the lumpy and wordy original but sticks to the post-war setting in the Caucasus Mountains, and the Toi cast – directed by Christian Penny – do the prologue in heavy Georgian accents, for no better reason, I imagine, than to prove they can do it. They ‘stage’ the gathering round a large table in the Te Whaea atrium, holding small rudimentary rag doll puppets. But they animate the argument in their own faces and bodies rather than endow the puppets with life.

A touch of theatrical magic occurs when a basket of goat cheese appears to travel the length of the table of its own volition. But – like the puppets – this trick has no valid rationale unless it’s to signal that ‘anything goes’, which proves to be the case in the ‘post-modern’ production that follows, blending contemporary costumes, props and technology with bits and bobs from all over the globe at different times in history. This adds further mystery to why the cast pretends to be Caucasian peasants in the first place, given it is they who go on to stage this production.

Thankfully, if illogically, the East European accents are dispensed with following the prologue and ‘own voices’ take over. Maybe the idea is that it’s Toi Whakaari students, not Georgian peasants, who are re-enacting the story for the purpose of showing off their skills and any social or political commentary is completely by the by. That would explain it all.

Moving into the main Te Whaea auditorium, we are invited to collect a stool or cushion then sit where we please, and feel free to move about if we want a better view of a scene. While fine in principle this doesn’t work in practice because we have no idea where each scene will be played or where it may move in the process. We therefore stay where we’ve planted ourselves initially until we discover we are actually in the way of the action, then we move. Meanwhile everyone is likely to have my experience of having key actions masked and never seeing some characters’ faces throughout a whole sequence – which raises the question, who exactly are they doing all this for? And why?

Brian King’s setting of scattered stepped rostra and platforms surrounding a central arena works well otherwise, with Austin Mather’s lighting design illuminating the action effectively while Maria Deere’s sound design enhances it. But quite why some areas are hung with what looks like home lighting displays in a retail centre escapes me.

The programme includes a synopsis of the prologue and five acts, and if you are not familiar with it I recommend you read it in advance if you want to make sense of what’s happening.  I know the play well but at interval and afterwards on opening night a number of people told me they had no idea what was going on. This is because too often the intentionally ramshackle ‘how’ of doing it undermines, rather than supports, the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the epic parable.

The first three acts re-enact the story of how the Governor’s Wife, Natella (Amelia Reid), supposedly the proud mother of son-and-heir Michael, abandons her baby when an insurrection, led by the Fat Prince Arsen Kasbeki (Katharine McGill), forces them to flee; and how the kitchen maid Grusha (Juanita Hepi), who is beginning to form a relationship with a soldier called Simon Chachava (Tim Carlsen), ends up with the baby and, despite the danger it puts her in and compromises she has to make, how she decides to bring the boy up as her own rather than let him perish.

The final two acts (after interval) reveal how a dissolute clerk and poacher called Azdak (Shadon Meredith) comes to be appointed judge following the military coup that seeks to restore order and justice (yeah right) to the war-ravaged land; and how he presides over the now-widowed Natella’s attempt to reclaim her boy and invokes the ‘chalk circle’ test (redolent of ‘the wisdom of Solomon’) to determine who is the true mother.

Costume designer Emma Ransley makes Natella monumental, and decks the upper class out in surreal wiggery and garb that recalls the French Revolution (the Fat Prince is clearly related to the Michelin Man), while Grusha, strangely for a kitchen maid, is kitted out a bit like a soldier herself, in a modern and trendy camouflage jacket.

Padded boobs, bums, tums and chests- mostly stuffed out with small tins, bottles and cartons from what I could see through the muslin – feature among the more materialistic characters. Brother Anastasius (Dan Hannah), the Monk who marries Grusha off to the supposedly dying Jessup (Guy Langford), is flashily got up as a charismatic preacher and is surrounded by a flock of party-hat-wearing followers as he talks seductively into a radio mic. And the soldiers of the final military takeover are hooded to resemble the rebels you see standing over their hostages in videos.

Veronica Brady, Emma Draper, Romy Hooper, Sophie Lindsay, Suli Moa, Emmet Skilton, Kay Smith, Jessica Smith, Matariki Whatarau, Cian White and Aroha White complete the vibrant cast, all playing their roles with degrees of flair and singing beautifully throughout. Indeed the singing and music – supervised by Julian Raphael; directed by Sophie Lindsay and Matariki Whatarau – is arguably the best thing about the production.

In his director’s note, Penny reminds us, "Brecht said that he wanted his work to make the audience ‘think and feel’ not just sit on the edge of their seat ‘enthralled’."  Yet these are the responses that elude me. Despite the odd flash of recognition of flawed human nature, I find it hard to grasp the relevance of all this carry-on to real life. And the moments when I should feel fear, loathing, concern, horror or delight (for example) at the unfolding events, mostly just leave me objectively noting the theatricality of it all.  

Maybe this is inevitable when a production tries to be ‘Brechtian’ by hoping we will somehow "think and feel" without being empathetically engaged in the ‘make believe’ of the story. Most disappointingly, the outcome of the chalk circle test is, in terms of dramatic tension and release, a fizzer, or it was on opening night.

As for linking it back to the purpose of telling the story itself, it either doesn’t happen or it is buried in a song that doesn’t deliver its message. I don’t know how McGuinness’s adaptation puts it, but Bently’s translation concludes:
"Take note of the meaning of the ancient soing:
That what there is shall belong to those who are good for it, thus 
The children to the maternal, that they thrive;
The carriages to good drivers, that they are driven well;
And the valley to the waterers, that it shall bear fruit."

As a production and performance spectacle, this Caucasian Chalk Circle is lots of fun. As long as you’re not worried about following the story, let alone finding any meaning or moral(ity) in it, you might even find it "enthralling". Was that the earth moving? Perhaps it is Bertolt turning in his grave.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


Leigh$:) November 11th, 2009

Hey my name is Leigh. I go to Kelburn Normal and I am also eleven.
I'd like to share my thoughts on the Caucasian Chalk Circle.

First, imagine a monochrome life. Everything is black and white, plain to the human eye, simple and obvious. Then imagine a silent pause after a show... then imagine noise, bustle, and bursts of colour-as if the whole world is changing in the blink of an eye. I think that Brecht is like that- he sees the world through the eyes of a child. Wishing, foolishly, some may say; rightfully others, that a world of arguments and complications is wrong. Why do we get angered enough to go around the world, killing people with guns for years on end? No I'm serious- rights of everyone should be equal and undeniable.

In Christian Penny's adaption, however, there is Russia. One side is black, the other is white. So they argue. But the point is, I agree discrimination and war is definitely wrong, but discovery is the plus side of it all. Black mixing and fighting with white makes silver, does it not? There is always a upside and a downside to everything. I don't intend to downgrade it in any way, but it all reminds me of a picture book called Good news, Bad News. There is always a bit of bad news which has a good side which has complications etc etc etc.

I know this may sound strange, but the mistake in the pre-release first half I saw when the lamp caught on fire really got me thinking. What if the whole matter was set in the age of tents and torches? It'd be actually very effective, in my view. And instead of complete darkness, it could be just the torches flaming to create shadows. It would be as if they were lit by emotion itself.

A question I had was would it work modernized? My class watched a clip where the lawyers were modern-speaking and clothed. But the whole thing could be... It could have current issues, like World Cup Rugby Tv rights and John Key saying stuff, I suppose, but that kind of thing (no offence to those who disagree) is not exactly as important and heart-touching. Unless you follow rugby, which I don't.

As well, I wonder what Mr. Penny thinks? I know that we're all self critical, but I like any play. And besided, no-one can underestimate a good show. It has what I call the perfect balance- humour, seriousness, and the brink of strange.

Anyway, overall, I think I got the idea- Brecht wanted people to think about issues as if they weren't real so we could realise how real they really are and make an effort to change that. If we think about war as if it were only real inside another world, then, possibly, we could capture it within. Like it was a dream, and we, as an audience, walk out of the play, still seroiusly thinking. Didn't Mr. Penny find doing such a play depressing? Also, I'm sure the dolls were practising in some magical way. Maybe I'm comparing it to Coraline.

I hope that Brecht's life wasn't another one of those dark 1920's people's. I have worn black today to commemorate the evils of the early 20th century.

Finally, I think that I can understand the point being put across, but as Orson Welles said, "If you want a happy ending, that depends, of couse, where you stop the story."

John Smythe November 10th, 2009

Thank you Daisy - that is a very valuable contribution to the discussion.

Daisy:) November 10th, 2009


I'm Daisy from Kelburn Normal School and I'm 11 years old.
I'd like to share my experience of the Caucasian Chalk Circle.

I saw the play and found it fasinating and entertaining, but I still didn't understand it properly. The play put me on the edge of being in the real world and the unreal world, with my mind being conscious of both. After the play I thought about the questions the play was made of. How did the actors put me in two different places at once with my mind being conscious of both? Was it the costumes? Was it the seating? The staging? What did the story mean to me? That was the hardest of all. What did it mean to me? How the feelings of the innocent average people of the  1940's, born in the wrong place and the wrong time who were the victims of war.
I have thought a lot about these questions and I'm not sure I found the right answers, but the questions made the play.  

John Smythe November 9th, 2009

Gosh. I had no idea I was supposed to be enthralled at this “brave and challenging decision” to include the child as “an unrehearsed guest in the production”. Including her in the action as the carrier of the ‘baby’ prop seemed fair enough, as a way of getting her used to being part of the performance. Seeing her so close to the action when Jessup got stark naked and into the drum for a wash was a bit of a worry, but the attendant actress did counsel her to avert her eyes so I suppose that was OK. All that was very distracting, though, from the point of the scene …

For the purposes of the ‘chalk circle test’ scene, however, I’d have thought the simple rules of child’s play were all that was required: let’s pretend I’ve been the only mother you remember over all the years you’ve been growing up, and now this lady who used to be really rich and powerful comes along and says she is your real mother, and a drunken old judge says you have to stand in the circle while each would-be mother takes an arm, and whichever one pulls you out of the circle will be declared your mother. How do you think you might feel about that …? (All explored in a back-and-forth interaction, of course.)

Hopefully the time she spent offstage with some of the cast in the 2nd half, before her big scene, involved a process by which the child was able to get ‘enrolled’. If not, she would have been a manipulated plaything of the adults, denied the right to engage in the make-believe with her own emotionally intelligent understanding and natural capacity for play.

Of course if a group of children had been pre-rehearsed into the role, that might have empowered them even more and made it a more rewarding experience. 

Surely this production’s emphasis on process and form over content is the antithesis of Brecht’s intention in wanting people to think and feel (about the real world the parable relates to) rather than be distracted and enthralled (by the performance elements).

sam trubridge November 9th, 2009

In my reading of the work, the child is a lot more than just another actor, and deserves more than just a performance rating. The inclusion of this naive, unrehearsed, and unknowing eye WITHIN the machinations of the stagecraft was a brave and challenging decision. He/she became a kind of 'lens' through which (as a character in the story) the issues in the play can be examined, and (as an unrehearsed guest in the production) we may look upon the event with greater seriousness. I am not certain if this figure and its dynamics were completely resolved, but I am certain that it is an inspired and intelligent exploration of Brecht's alienation technique.

I would also like to maintain the relevance of 'Alienation' in an era where the show of spectacle and virtuosity often prevails over an intelligent discourse in performance - both live and on screen. These 'effects' (such as Georgian accents) do little more than show off the skills of a particular craftsman and enthrall the viewer within the world of the show. Escapism is often desired, but as Brecht himself said: "Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it". That moment where we are snapped out of the theatre-dream is a moment of awakening. It promotes a deeper realisation of our place in the world, helping us recognise the parts that we all play in our lives as 'co-creative' audience members and performers.

Laurie Atkinson November 2nd, 2009

Limited to 350 words a review (with the occasional special case when I can ask for a little more space) I believe it would be invidious to pick out actors in a large cast for special mention, let alone a child actor who will appear only on the night I happen to attend. As always on these occasions the graduating students work very effectively as a team, and so they should after being together for three years.

Also there are many more ways to ‘alienate’ a member of an audience than Brecht’s V-effect: not being able to see the actors who are hidden because I have had to shift my seat yet again and finding myself standing behind a high rostrum; not being able to hear some of the dialogue; being distracted by the actors (not their fault) changing costumes, finding props, etc right beside me or in my line of sight when I am looking at the stage action. It is all a bit of the luck of the draw where one sits or ends up in promenade productions and this can easily colour one’s attitude towards a production.

Yes, one can be moved and have one’s sympathy aroused in plays as unrealistic as The Chalk Circle -  as Anna Harcourt’s clearly was. When Leontes in The Winter’s Tale touches the hand of his wife’s statue and says “O, she’s warm!” I was reduced to tears when I saw the play a few years ago with John Nettles (of Midsomer Murders fame) as the jealous Leontes. But no such emotion swept over me  at any point in this Caucasian Chalk Circle, which is the second production I have seen – the first was a very long time ago and I had read it, also a long time ago.

It seems to me the A-effect is, as John Smythe says, something of a misnomer and something that Brecht developed in reaction to a style of theatre that had a brief period of ascendancy and has since disappeared completely. Also I can’t see why one can’t be enthralled and thinking at the same time.


John Smythe November 2nd, 2009

I am delighted, Anna, that at the final performance the form and style of the production was fully serving the content.  By Willem’s account it was working well much sooner than that. But on opening night I felt it was off balance. 

My comment about the opening scene is based on the fact that Brecht saw fit to place the ancient parable in what was then a contemporary context, so would it not be true to his vision to do the same now? Not necessarily in a local setting but somehow related to today’s socio-political issues – although pinpointing one to which the Chalk Circle parable would be relevant is quite a challenge. Also I regard Brecht’s opening scene as a rather tedious piece of dramaturgy.  By the way, were the puppets still used on the final night, and if so, were they endowed with ‘life’?

Hopefully the dramatic tension / release of the chalk circle test became better realised so that the outcome provoked more feeling and thought. Of course the monstrous Governor’s Wife is clearly, and we have shared in Grusha’s struggle, so it is a foregone conclusion we will want Grusha to win. The question is whether this corrupt, sleazy, drunk and self-serving so-called judge, Azdak, will see it that way.  One thing I’ve always wondered about Azdak is, has he always been wise deep within his wily self-preserving ways, or is the case of Grusha and the boy transformative for him? At what point does he hit on that test as the answer to the dilemma, and why?

The whole play pits the individual against society and seeks the point of balance between self and others: how do we balance our personal wants and needs against ‘the greater good’ and where do the basic tenets of humanity – value all lives as you do your own; do as you would be done by, etc – fit  in?  If later performances got people thinking about all that, I am delighted.

Anna Harcourt November 1st, 2009

In this comment I address both your review, John and that of Laurie Atkinson. Both of you appear to be commenting that the production ignored the themes of the play in favour of spectacle and the desire to be different. I imagine that both of you reviewers are quite familiar with the play. I assume you have seen it performed or read it at least once, or multiple times. I however, had not. I had never read the play, seen a production or even wikipediad the plot. And I understood it perfectly, despite the fact that I didn’t even read the synopsis in the programme as you recommended. I felt the themes shone through brilliantly. Maybe not every nuance that you are familiar with was presented in the way you expected or desired, and this left you with the feeling that the point had been missed. But for one experiencing it for the first time, I definitely needed no reduction in the showmanship of the performance to understand the themes.

I felt the seating was the most exciting directorial decision I have experienced this year, and perhaps in a long while. I have never been in an audience that has had the same sense of unity and community. The active involvement and attention that it demanded created an intense focus to the piece. I was surprised to realise afterwards how long the play actually was. Never for a moment did my mind wander away in the way that so often happens when watching theatre.  Brecht wanted to wake his audience up from their drowsy passive viewing. I think he’d be jumping for joy.


I disagree with the notion that the setting of the prologue didn’t serve Brecht’s intentions. I dislike being spoon-fed by theatre, and that’s what I feel moving the prologue to a NZ setting would do. I think so much more richness comes from allowing me to draw my own connections from post WW2 Georgia to modern day NZ land disputes, and then back again to modern Georgia to ponder the things that have happened there just since my birth.


And “Arouses no sympathy”- are you serious Laurie? The moment of Simon arriving back from the war to find that Grusha is ‘no longer of the same name’ was one of the most heartfelt and lovely pieces of acting I have seen this year. “Without subtlety”? Pah. Hats off to Juanita Hepi and Tim Carlsen.


Finally, I think it is an appalling omission to not even mention the child. Every night a primary school student would act as Michael the child. They have never taken part in any previous rehearsals, they do not know the play at all. They would watch the first half of the play, then come onstage in the second half and improvise their response based on what they had seen. I think enormous congratulation should go to the kids who played these roles. John, I don’t know about the people who you spoke to at half time who said they couldn’t follow the plot, but the girl who acted on the night that I attended (Sat 31st Oct) seemed totally on top of it.


Oh, and I loved the lighting.

The Little Black Duck October 27th, 2009

Said better  than I could by Willem, but I wanted to note my agreement.

A whole so much greater than the sum of its parts (though the parts stand up to some pretty fair scrutiny too).

A pleasure, a surprise and an education.

Willem Wassenaar October 25th, 2009

 In addition to John's review, my experience of the CCC (Saturday 24th October) was completely different. 

 What a feast! I felt the work had a strong heart, and I was blown away by the ritualistic nature of theatre and the world that we were invited into. The gentle, simple and beautiful involvement of the child in the story and the ensemble holding and taking us into this ride. This theatre was raw, tender, imaginative, dirty, dangerous and felt unexpected, yet as an audience (which started operating as a community in itself) I never felt alienated from the action in a way that was not adding to the positive experience. I felt, I thought, I questioned, I debated, I repulsed; I did a lot in extremes as the ensemble gave me the empowerment and trust to do so.

This work showcases the corrupt powers that control the individual in society, and I think that this question of who has power over who and in which way this is executed, is very relevant for a modern audience. I do not think that world literature needs to be localized to achieve this, let us please invite audiences to translate the theatrical metaphors themselves. I am not interested in a piece of work that is spelling this out for me, and pushes me how I need to make sense of the play. 

Here is a graduation production that has the balls to commit to a performance style and vision that pays off (for me) in the long term, something that is not a direct hit but is more intelligent than that; it lives in a different layer/world and might seem bizarre, odd, strange at first, but starts having depth when you get further in the story and when you invest yourself in the experience. One can only hope that this kind of risk taking can take place in the professional arena, Toi Whakaari is shamelessly pioneering here and shows her innovative responsibility in full bloom.
Actors, designers, the entire team worked hard and so did we as an audience.
Bertolt Brecht moving under the earth?? GOOD, VERY GOOD! He would have probably tried to climb up to be part of it.
Anyways, theatre is wonderfully subjective, I take the liberty to write down my experience here and can fully recommend this piece of work as it has inspired me in many ways.


John Smythe October 24th, 2009

Exactly, Sam. Because Brecht wrote that “the spectator was no longer in any way allowed to submit to an experience uncritically (and without practical consequences) by means of simple empathy with the characters in a play” people have often taken his verfremdung – translated as ‘the alienation effect’ – to mean we are not supposed to have an emotional response to the action, or become emotionally engaged with the story, and I think this is a misinterpretation.

In my understanding Brecht’s verfremdung
effect was/is aimed at breaking away from prevailing notions of ‘naturalism’ in order to get more effectively at the ‘truth’ and jolt bourgeois audiences out of their complacency. Thus the breaking down of ‘the fourth wall’, the re-introduction of a narrator, the use of songs and all the other elements of ‘popular’, ‘people’s’ and ‘epic theatre’ that have found their ways into many performing arts forms in the decades that followed.

His principle aim, I believe, was to stimulate a critical response to society and human behaviour. Penny’s programme note, saying Brecht “
wanted his work to make the audience 'think and feel' not just sit on the edge of their seat 'enthralled'” is a good way of putting it, and I imagine there are not many playwrights who would not  agree regarding how they want their own plays to work.

In the 1970s Dennis Potter and a group of his peers coined the phrase “realism but not naturalism” to explain their ways of dealing with the realities of life without exploring their perceptions of the truth through naturalistic dramas that tried to recreate ‘real life’ on stage or screen.

And of course it was ever thus. Throughout the history of theatre, the conventions Brecht and others challenged had only become predominant relatively recently – and can we say briefly?  

But back to this production of CCC. My issue is that, on opening night at least, there did not appear to be any socio-political purpose in presenting the story. It made little connection with the real world and just left me thinking, gosh they’re a talented bunch. Is that enough?   

sam trubridge October 24th, 2009

An interesting review John. There are some very valid observations. However, I am interested in your analysis of the play vis a vis Brecht's techniques of 'alienation' - that cannot go unconsidered in any production, or review of a production, of his work.

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