Caucasian Chalk Circle RNT, London: Review

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The Independent Culture
Intimate experience in the Olivier? It sounds about as likely as an attack of agoraphobia at the Gate. Perched in the balcony of the National's biggest auditorium, you can sometimes feel in a completely different postal district from the cast strutting their stuff way down below. Not at the moment, though, because the balcony has been closed off and the seating relocated on-stage in order to convert this mighty space into an in-the-round theatre for a three-month season of two modern classics. With the height of the building brought down by an umbrella canopy that hangs over the proceedings and improves audibility, the Olivier is disorientingly transformed into a charmed circle (like some grander version of the Young Vic) producing, at this least likely of addresses, a close encounter of a very welcome kind.

It's ironic that a play by Brecht should be inaugurating the season because he's one of the few dramatists (along with David Hare and the Greek tragedians) who is thought to work in the epic scale of the Olivier's traditional configuration. Simon McBurney and Theatre de Complicite have, however, sound reasons for wanting to stage The Caucasian Chalk Circle in the round, not just because of the eponymous ring drawn on the stage for the climactic Wisdom of Solomon-like tug of love between two women over a child.

As was demonstrated recently when the Old Vic production of Hurlyburly had to take to the streets because of a bomb scare, audiences instinctively form a circle round storytellers. The bulk of Chalk Circle is a play-within- a-play, an old Chinese drama that, in its parabolic questioning of the principles of ownership, reflects on a land dispute that has just been resolved in the post-Second World War Georgia of the outer drama. The in-the-round staging enhances the sense that this is a watched performance, just as the hunted, fugitive status of Juliet Stevenson's staunch, moving Grusha - the peasant girl who, in the turmoil of a political uprising, finds herself landed with, and then bringing up as her own, the governor's abandoned baby - is underlined by the repetitive circuit she has to race, looking fearfully over her shoulder. It's a witty touch, too, but McBurney's nerdily knowing, shrewdly subversive shambles of an Azdak, the accidental judge, should preside over cases on a swivel chair. This is not just so that he can toothily ogle both sides of the house. A boozy chancer like him needs eyes in the back of his head.

The moral of Chalk Circle (that resources should go to those best able to make use of them) is illustrated by a rigged, overly black-and-white dramatic situation. But in a production that resounds with Georgian anthems, Complicite once again create theatrical magic with the simplest of means as, say, bobbing staves create a flowing river and are then yanked upright to become the intimidating pikes of a knot of soldiers. Some of the effects have been recycled from earlier productions. When a bucket of water and mud is suddenly flung over Ms Stevenson as graphic shorthand for all the privations of her journey, it reminds you of the similar use of a bucket of blood in The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol, which also centred on a tenacious female peasant. You don't feel that Complicite are breaking fresh imaginative ground. What the evening does cast new light on is the Olivier. Let's hope that in-the-round seasons become a permanent part of Richard Eyre's legacy to this building.

In rep (booking: 0171-928 2252) Paul Taylor