Black Swan State Theatre Company in collaboration with the National Theatre of China
Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Heath Ledger Theatre State Theatre Centre of WA
Presented as part of the City of Perth Winter Arts Festival 2016.
This is Black Swan’s first International collaboration. Under masterful direction of Dr Wang Xiaoying and his team (AD’s Chen Tao and Felix Ching Ching Ho) from the National Theatre of China, they bring us an engaging piece of Bertolt Brecht’s most well-known play.
It’s an innovative, fast paced, often furious, multifaceted production. A play based on an ancient Chinese fable (The Circle of Chalk), written by a classic German Playwright, in the style of Epic Theatre, performed by an Australian company and directed by a Chinese Director in the form of Chinese Opera – how could this production fail to be intriguing?
Epic Theatre is Brecht’s self-devised style in which a play ‘should not cause the spectator to identify emotionally with the characters or action before them, but should instead provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the action on the stage’. This production certainly adheres to Brecht’s principles by offering up an array of characters in a style rarely experienced in Perth. I for one certainly left the performance not really knowing what to think of what I just experienced, but on reflection, came to appreciate the depth of talent, complexity and dedication to the piece.
Entering the theatre you immediately enter the world of the performer. The cast, all in Black Swan Company T-shirts, set about pre – performance warm up in full view of the audience, a directorial decision that invites the patron to enter the theatrical world. The stage then transforms into a wonderful mountain vista, setting the scene of ancient China.
Set design by Richard Roberts is visually stunning, presenting layered hanging material pieces cut into the shape of a jagged mountain range. This clever design moved so subtly and gave the stage a wonderful depth allowing easy transition for the many entrance and exits for cast and set.
Zhao Yan’s costume designs are beautiful. Traditional in design, they capture the essence of rural life and the richness of Royal China. With most actors playing multiple characters they are easily able to transition the often swift costume changes. Combined with Zhang Huaxiang’s splendid character mask design, the two convey the drama and tradition of Chinese Opera beautifully.
One of the strengths of this production is the excellent composition. Brecht’s unscored songs are impeccably brought to life by Clint Bracknell (Composer/MD/Sound Designer). His vocal and guitar skills are outstanding and accompanied by percussionist Arunachala, it’s a collaboration that adds an intriguing element to the evening.
In true Brechtian style, the ensemble cast sang directly to the audience in order to create a sense of detachment between the characters and their observers. Initially, I felt this created a sense of discomfort, however, on later reflection, I found the technique to be effective but hampered by the large Black Swan Company logos on the cast’s t-shirts. Perhaps plain black shirts would have been a less distracting choice for these important story telling moments?
It does take a while to adjust to the heightened Peking Opera performance style but once you get in the headspace, the performances on the whole flaunt a talented ensemble.
In her Black Swan debut, Alex Malone, (Servant girl Grusha) delivers a lovely, understated performance, which underscores her character’s strength and vulnerability. James Sweeny, as Grusha’s love interest Simon, also gives a sensitive portrayal. With more natural acting styles, they first seem to clash with the other heightened characterisations, but this soon becomes less apparent as the production finds its groove and the style juxtaposition succeeds. Both are very watchable performers.
Adam Booth as the outlandish Ironshirt, gives just enough flourish and innuendo without stepping over the line into distraction and Caitlin Beresford-Ord the Governor’s wife, who, while fleeing, chooses possessions over her baby, instils stately privilege. Geoff Kelso, with the difficult role of Judge Azdak, characterises him with skilful enthusiasm.
Giving outstanding measured performances, Luke Hewitt and Steve Turner shine with polished comic timing and multilayered characterisations. As an audience I felt safe in their delivery of such heightened characters; a memorable highlight.
A production of this scale, style and complexity is a risky undertaking. But, like or loathe, this is one production that at the very least, succeeds in producing a fascinating theatrical experience that presses the boundary of what is comfortable to WA audiences; and something that Black Swan and all associated, should be very proud of and congratulated for.
Photo Credits: Philip Gostelow
Directed by Dr Wang Xiaoying
Cast: Caitlin Beresford-Ord, Adam Booth, Kylie Farmer [Kaarljilba Kaardn], Luke Hewitt, Geoff Kelso, Alex Malone, Felicity McKay, Lynette Narkle, Kenneth Ransom, James Sweeny, Steve Turner and Alison van Reeken.
Set Designer: Richard Roberts
Costume Designer: Zhao Yan
Prop/Mask Designer: Zhang Huaxiang
Composer/Musical Director/Sound Designer: Clint Bracknell
Lighting Designer: Mark Howett
Assistant Directors: Chen Tao & Felix Ching Ching Ho
Guitarist: Clint Bracknell