All around Georgia

25th April 1997 at 01:00
The Caucasian Chalk Circle, By Bertolt Brecht, Royal National Theatre with Theatre de Complicite

Theatre de Complicite's production of Brecht's political fable is theatrical storytelling at its most compelling. The National's Olivier auditorium has been transformed into an in-the-round space in which the action swirls and shifts beneath a tent-like canopy. This both provides a projection screen and is a reminder of the nomadic life of the Georgian peasants whose story this is.

In the Prologue, set in 1945, the theme of human rights is introduced, to be colourfully investigated in the play-within-the-play, the story of Grusha. It is told by the fruit growers who successfully outplay the keepers of goats for a disputed, war-ravaged valley.

Complicite is made up of performers from a mixture of cultures with a variety of accents. Occasionally, in this intimate, but demanding, space, there is a lack of clarity in the Prologue, but when Jeffery Kissoon takes over as the storyteller (the Singer), with Juliet Stevenson playing the good-hearted Grusha, scarcely a foot is put wrong.

Kissoon is hypnotic. A veteran of Peter Brook's epic Mahabharata, he has the urgency of a charismatic preacher, but always there is a twinkle of humour and music in his voice. Music (by Gerard McBurney) is a powerful force in this production, folk instruments - mainly wind and percussion - providing atmospheric support for the swell of vocal harmony, which despite its sophistication never loses touch with its roots.

Stevenson's girlish figure, her quick movements and gentleness, are in startling contrast to her unexpected singing voice. Deep, resonant, with a rough edge, it is half way to Lotte Lenya's gritty rasping of Weill's songs.

The moral fable of the peasant girl who brings up a neglectful rich woman's child at great cost to herself and finally wins him in a judgment of Solomon when she refuses to drag him painfully out of a chalk circle, is vividly enacted. The performers set scenes, turn themselves into bridges, rivers, squads of soldiers. The focus is on the actors, their voices and bodies - not least on Complicite's director, Simon McBurney, who delivers a comic masterpiece as Azdak, the subversive judge. Tickets: 0171 928 2252

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