An exciting collaboration between Black Swan State Theatre Company and the National Theatre of China comes to fruition this week with The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Heath Ledger Theatre. A pre-show Q&A with the director Dr Wang Xiaoying allowed us some insight into the two-year collaboration. Dr Wang said he liked the circularity of an ancient Chinese fable, rewritten by a German playwright, to be performed by Australian actors and directed by a Chinese director. The story of a peasant girl, Grusha, who rescues a baby and becomes a better mother than its wealthy biological mother is a parable about right vs wrong and law vs justice. The Chalk Circle of the title refers to the test that is given to the two mothers to decide who is the better mother. The play combines unsentimental fairy tale, romance, battles, beheadings, dangerous journeys and a high-stakes trial, all set in a far-flung locale allowing artistic license with costumes and scenery.
In 1935, the playwright Bertolt Brecht saw a command performance of Beijing Opera techniques in Moscow and was inspired to develop his most famous concept of his epic theatre, the V-effekt (Verfremdungseffekt), or alienation technique. Brecht wanted to make the audience think in a reflective way rather than an emotional involvement in the action, and used a range of devices to remind them that they were watching theatre and not real life. Examples of such techniques include explanatory captions or illustrations projected on a screen; actors stepping out of character to lecture, summarize, or sing songs; and stage designs that do not represent any locality but that, by exposing the lights and ropes, keep the spectators aware of being in a theatre.
These techniques are in full effect in this production by Black Swan. The set was beautiful in its simplicity. Designer Richard Roberts has created a minimal set with visually arresting pieces – bare wooden boards, a circular revolving platform and a richly evocative mountain tapestry at the back. The set is open to the wings, allowing us to see the cast putting their costumes on. The ensemble started on the stage warming up, immediately reminding us that we are watching a show. They apply their masks and the show begins. A total of 61 masks and 80 costumes were brought over from Beijing.
The ensemble worked really well together, and I enjoyed their constant presence on stage. Theirs was not an easy task. The natural concept underlying this show is to jolt us out of the story to intellectualise what we are watching. It fell to them to be grotesques and caricatures of their characters. I especially enjoyed Kylie Farmer and Steve Turner’s characterisations. A special mention should be made of Alex Malone, who carries the role of Grusha admirably. She has a rich speaking and singing voice and her role is the heart of the play. The music, composed and performed by Dr Clint Bracknell and aided by percussionist Arunachala, was jarring, but that was done intentionally to remove our emotional connection to the action. I would argue I would like to have seen more made of the Aboriginal artists.
I felt that the whole production could have gone further. It felt like a tame melange of Chinese and Australian styles. It could have been pushed in either direction to make it pop. There was some inconsistency in tone and accents. I feel the space was perhaps too large to fully appreciate the details on stage. The masks felt lost in the space, from my view I could not see the masks properly, and Beijing Opera is famous for its colours, which felt muted in the large space. The wings could have been pushed onto the stage and made the playing space more intimate. That would have made us closer to the action, and the jarring moments would have had more effect.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a masterclass in Brechtian techniques, which made for fascinating and intellectual viewing. It is an exciting concept, and one which is well worth making. International collaborations allow a cultural artistic exchange. The Australian actors will have had a steep learning curve and they have done well. Director Dr Wang himself noted that this was a starting point for a possible longer collaboration. When asked what Brecht would have thought of the Black Swan production, he said, “It is 100% Brechtian…but also different.”