The Caucasian Chalk Circle: What's Next?

As Cast enters the second phase of workshops for The Caucasian Chalk Circle as part of Public Acts with The National Theatre. The play's director James Blakey reflects on all the amazing moments of joy so far, and what's next for this fantastic project:

In the last 6 months the Public Acts group leaders have moved mountains to create comfortable, creative and focussed spaces for our associates and groups to work in, on top of already massive and inspiring roles within their communities.

Our brilliant writer Chris Bush and composer Ruth Chan are working in parallel with the weekly workshop programme to provide us with a new musical version of The Caucasian Chalk Circle specifically for Doncaster that demands to be told by a citizens performance company of 80+ people. The more time we share with our group leaders and members in workshops, the more deeply we understand the relationship between the story at the heart of the project and the people will go on to perform it. And the more we understand that it is through singing, dancing and performing characters together that this story should be told.

On one level it is the story of Grusha - a reluctant hero in a distant, fairytale world, who draws courage from the realisation that someone needs her. A young woman who had never thought that she might be a mother, who goes on a dangerous journey to protect a child who wasn't her own and ultimately is able to build a loving family from scattered pieces. But on another level it's the story of a community who come to celebrate this woman as one of their own, and the story of a woman who finds belonging in that community.

Grusha is the kind of person who keeps herself to herself, she keep her relationship with her soldier girlfriend Saffiya under the radar, and she doesn't expect anyone to help her. When the revolution at the beginning of our story promises to bring new hope to the people of Grusinia and the streets are flooded with protesters singing the song of revolution, Grusha is not involved in the uprising. Accepting her lot for what it is, she prefers to keep her head down.

But after Prince Michael, next in line to the throne, is left behind by the fleeing Queen Natella and Grusha puts her own life at risk by rescuing him, everything starts to change. She meets a group of travellers on the way to her brother's house in the Northern Mountains, who are also on a long journey, and some of them with their children too. Recognising Grusha's desperate need to cross a dangerous mountain bridge, the travellers intercept the soldiers who are following them, and help her to get to the other side. The company sing here not just to give her courage but also to amplify her realisation that she and baby Michael belong together. They see that he is no longer a Prince in fine linen - he is now her son.

Eventually the soldiers do catch up with Grusha and Michael, and they are brought home to face trial. Queen Natella has returned to take the throne but she needs Prince Michael back to legitimise her claim. In the court case that follows, the community turn up for justice, having witnessed everything that Grusha has done to protect and raise Michael so far. And it is their lobbying from the gallery that swings the case in Grusha's favour, finally bringing Grusha, Saffiya and Michael together as a family, accepting and celebrating their love. 

As well as being crucial in these big story moments, we are designing big set piece moments of music, dance and pageantry to give the company and the audience the feeling of joyous togetherness that is so important for our project. Not least of all, the celebration of the end of war that comes during Grusha's marriage to Jussup, which we are are currently imagining as an explosion of swing band music and dance, one of several full company moments where participants will feel the power and joy of everyone's bodies and voices combined.

Beyond these full company moments, there will be LOADS of opportunities for participants to be cast in significant solo roles, whether that's meaty acting parts, featured singing roles, or helping to physicalise the world of the show through dance, movement, processions and journeys. We are also changing the Narrator role in the original play to be a team of Storytellers who will represent the full range of beautiful humanity taking part, so that the story can be really owned and delivered by the company.

Whether it's older members at b:friend giving Grusha advice as a mythological oracle or children at b:friend telling the whole story from Michael's perspective, Conversation Club creating the soundscape of Grusha's journey with bodies, voices and drums, Creative Directions designing a sensory space for Michael and Grusha to feel safe in, or the Young Company debating the gender roles in narrative whilst creating beautiful movement, the company members are the heart and soul of this story.' 

James Blakey
The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Director