A moral message about dragging children

The performance Caucasian Chalk Circle, produced by National Theatre Sarajevo and MESS Scene, has been performed on the second night of this year’s, 59th festival edition, that had its premiere performance back in February. This work is special for the chosen means of expression by the great director Paolo Magelli, who is prone to spectacle and “epochal” set-ups which are keen on radically changing the predetermined drama aesthetics, ever since the 70ties of the previous century. The theatre language of Caucasian Chalk Circle surpasses the ways of drama staging, by playing on a more advanced version of the basic interpretation of the material, to the point of re-writing the established logic of the stage space. Dramaturge Željka Udovičić-Pleština, on the other hand, brings us a completely new and different version of the original text by Bertolt Brecht, which now reveals many more nuances of an intimate tragedy of the two main characters, and sets it up within the framework of the performance.

The story of two women who are sentenced to dragging a child by both of its arms, in order to prove which is its actual mother, something of a tale almost as old as humanity itself. Appearing in two geographically almost identical versions, which differ by some ethnographic elements, mostly language. One version stems from Russian folklore that has been noted in the areas of Central and South Asia, articulated as nravojčenie (Russian for moral message), while the other, located some kilometres to the south, in the area of former Mesopotamia, has been coined as a verbal hikayat (Arabian for instructive story). The story always has the same epilogue. The real mother doesn’t at all drag her child, so that she doesn’t hurt it. The other woman, hungry for power, thinks that she achieved victory when she grabs the child to her side, up until the judge stops the agony with a clear moral message – only a true mother would quit the competition so that she doesn’t tear at the arms of her child – by saying: “I’d rather the child staying with somebody else, in good health and whole, than split half way and staying with me.” The true mother, of course, leaves with her child. Brecht’s Chalk Circle located in the Caucasus, naturally, has both versions integrated, thus building its fundamental subject form based on this narrative construct, but also a place whereby the idea of the piece is being realized, almost like a pamphlet, through one of its basic dramatic conflicts and accompanying epilogues. Brecht is prone to teaching lessons, as he calls them himself, pieces that consider a moral crisis in a community, and if further description was needed, we would recognize them somewhere in between Middle Age morality and elements of Agitprop from the Russian avant garde movement. So, the credo dictatorship-first-then-everything-else, is an authentic manuscript by Brecht’s, which can be clearly read from this drama, also possessing additional literary and artistic values which move away from the propaganda of a regiment, thus being the starting point, for the most part, in this adaptation of Caucasian Chalk Circle for dramaturge Željka Udovičić-Pleština and director Paolo Magelli.

This exact logic in the mise-en-scène by Magelli, is what contributes to the stage space of Caucasian Chalk Circle becoming a character in itself, at the moment when the actors start to dance over a lake of plastic and rubber soles of shoes and boots. Already with the first death case in the performance, played like an act of taking shoes off, does it become clear how the soles are in fact layers of those overthrown, ill-suited, and useless, and their corpses being the basis for constructing new overturns and betrayals. A cemetery of shoes on the floor, but also the actors’ clothes, start to become, the very next time, one of the ways in which the suspense of the micro-dramatic situation is being built: we are truly cheering for nobody turning out barefoot, while the lake, is constantly filled with death and the stream never stops. The episodists are continuously bringing in shoes in carts, and when an inventory of soles is listed one time, it becomes clear that in the uproar of a civil war almost an entire village got extinct. Primarily, directing and acting achieve the school-age idea here: “to tell” the basic story through the actors’ play in, and related to the stage space, it’s meaning and context, but also to their partner thereby.

So, the cast is the next thing that makes this work special, but it is simultaneously the point where the performance starts to fall apart. The ensemble is composed of different actors with varying degrees of quality in artistic performance, and belonging to theatre houses and age groups. In principle, this is a great thing that can happen in theatre, that should be the usual aim, and something which makes this ensemble positively diverse in the sense of means of expression, and again, channeled and directed toward a basic style of theatre language; but only at first glance. There is a lot of good here: Miodrag Trifunović, Vedrana Božinović, Ermin Sijamija and Aleksandar Seksan are playing the theatre of experience and a classic background, based on extraordinary, and above all correct solutions in dramatic imitation; young actors Maja Izetbegović, Dino Sarija and Vedran Đekić constantly question the limits of their work and oftentimes arrive at some incredibly creative solutions for their characters; Ermin Bravo is the embodiment and a carrier of rhythm, and a marker of the stage’s atmosphere appearing in times when its most necessary, during songs and parts of storytelling; Ejla Bavčić-Tarakčija succeeds, in most cases, to make the caricature grotesque without falling into a trap of mockery, whereby the border is very thin. The quality of the ensemble is best seen when they switch from one character to another and completely alter their approach to material and way of acting. So, the problem is not in the variety of creativity and range of the actors’ means of expression being applied. The problem lies in the irrational peaks that are constantly happening in the sense of variety of acting styles even in the midst of a dramatic situation, or more precisely, during partner play. So, the scenes which represent Brecht’s structural and in-depth analysis and critique of the social reality, shouldn’t be reduced to a halfway funny physical sketch without an introduction or context in the sense of acting/style or dramaturgy/narrative, even if they have to be so bitter and cynical. The audience should disdain from the ugliness of these negatively colored characters, mostly through satire, introduced and stylistically realized throughout the work, and not laugh suddenly at the superficial caricaturization, and then to ask themselves if they had seen a comedy. Further on, the dialogue scenes out from which protrudes the personal tragedy of the protagonist, even in Brecht’s world based on emotional and dramatic distance or amputation, should be played with a reduced pathos of a Greek tragedy, and not the pathos characteristic to a 17th century melodrama or even vaudeville. Besides, the stage space is also a character in this performance. The depth of the stage is also important. It is layered, and is sometimes the place of a few parallel actions. It’s the same with “mass” scenes, referring to the mass of people brought by the entire ensemble, when we are watching some turbulence or just the suffering of the people. The ensemble, from performance to performance, slowly “clears” the mass aspect, and “fixes” the mise-en-scene, thus familiarizing the proscenium, and thereby absolutely losing the language of theatre and the “cascade” world set-up by Paolo Magelli. However, such changes are oftentimes presupposed, because a performance is alive and it is a process, and so good things come out of it, for example, the scenes with children, that are now fantastic and they truly reflect the image of adults which are pushing children into the game of war. Entering the grey zone of the critical corrective which borders with he impudent and unpopular and incorrect I’d-do-it-like-this, sincerely advised is the return to the initial, already played mise-en-scene, through theatre language, all the way to the style and the actors’ play; so, in the end, possibly unnecessarily poignant, although evident, all that remains after Brecht and Megelli are chalk and shoes.

Song is possibly the biggest step forward in the performance Caucasian Chalk Circle. Here, it’s all about play. Brecht’s theatre audience is used to the episodes that are by declaration a song, and that represent musicating in contrast to the drama situation. Luckily, here its changed with a more creative solution. Song is interlaced with the actors’ play, and is becoming a part of the drama situation, never leaving thereby, at least in the sense of rhythm, and still, there is a very clear distinction between these poetic sequences in regard to the play of realism. Contributing here are Kenan Kojić who is musicating the entire time and Vedrana Božinović who tactfully uses the violin as one of the actors’ solutions. But nevertheless, the actors’ play is most important. So, the actors are transforming dialogue into song and songs into monologues and dialogue, and in a subtle, natural, authentic, but at the same time poetic way. The solo part of Ermin Bravo in the role of Azdak, who at times becomes the Narrator, are masterful and appear like an action poetry piece which suddenly grows into being just that. On the other hand, a very attractive dialogue scene is the one between Maja Izetbegović in the role of Grusha and Aldin Omerović in the role of Simon, which is performed en face and in the proscenium, mostly using speech. This scene slowly becomes a song, accompanied by Božinović and Bravo, who are dictating rhythm, and carry the atmosphere and style, and are the embodiment of the upcoming dark force which envelops this occasion of two young people breaking up, and that suggest evil. Although taste should not be a parameter for a critique, one has to note how all these “hybrid” scenes bordering on song and speech, are simply fantastic and a true pleasure.

The already described stage design by Mirna Ler is a place where the ideosphere of the performance is redefined. It is all artistic, but also technologically advanced to match the level of Magelli’s conceptual storytelling, or more precisely what we are calling dramaturgy through stage design. Although, most of the effort has been put into the performance dramaturgy and text adaptation of Caucasian Chalk Circle, so that leaves a lot of room for discussion here. Željka Udovičić-Pleština has made a truly skillful and successful feat upon the original text, which works wonderfully for the performance. Udovičić-Pleština confines a great number of characters, and even scenes, in order to abtractise the basic storyline of the tragedy of Grusha and Simon, conditioned by a deviant social community. Thereby she achieves a good, stable, and clear partiture for Magelli’s spectacle, which will ultimately end with that famous court scene, but also a literal ravishing for Grusha’s son within a circle written in chalk. This has been a difficult task, given the volume and layerness of the original text by Brecht. The performance should have received an additional step forward in the process of adaptation. Let us separate the content. There are two stories. The first is based on troubles that are happening to Grusha and Simon. We find them becoming a love couple in a country that is falling apart. The story starts to develop. Simon goes to war, and Grusha takes on the role of caretaker for the baby. Her trajectory, composed of running away and saving herself and the baby, is very difficult and all the episodes which contribute to portray it, are totally “legitimate”. But, the storyline development is abruptly shut down by a huge retarding episodium based on the second story, a completely inserted collage image about the deviation of the social community. That is a concrete point at which the problem in the dramatic structure arises. In the moment when there should be a climax and the revelation of the epilogue to the battle of Grusha with the lords for the sake of her child, we arrive at the point where the story is cut. So, an artificial insertion of the second story about the history and background of political turbulence in the country is done. The contents of the second story are important, mostly because of the arrival of Azdak at the position of the judge, but in this type of structure, the performance Caucasian Chalk Circle, exactly at the time of entering and exiting this episode borders more with unsightliness because of tearing down the attention of the viewers, that with a delay of climax as a means of building up suspense, which has been the intention thereby. When we finally return to the basic story and the resolution of the question of motherhood, this final and main scene in the court seems served up and expected. If the text has been intervened on so much, in order to avoid such episodes by Brecht, then it would have been great to find another way to balance out these two stories more skillfully. However, it has to be emphasized that although designed as a deus ex machina, the served ending of Caucasian Chalk Circle following an enormous circling and standing in place, is one of the most brutal and emotionally intense experiences through which an audience can go through; and that is the only thing important, the only thing carrying the performance’s quality, when the line is drawn.

In any case, this long awaited child of MESS, a great and above average performance in the artistic and production sense, Caucasian Chalk Circle, has showed itself as a smart, and above all, a necessary move. Megelli’s performance is one of the better made works in BiH repertoires of national theatre in the last five or six years. Besides MESS showing maturity and an ability to shape theatre life in Bosnia and Herzegovina even outside the festival period, the performance Caucasian Chalk Circle serves as a great pillar in the repertoire of the National Theatre Sarajevo, around which new tendencies of such dramatic and artistic policy can be further developed and built.

Author: Hamza Demirović

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