The proverb blood is thicker than water is often used to prioritise family bonds over all else. The full saying is the blood of the convenant is thicker than the water of the womb, that is the bonds that we make by choice are stronger than those that bind us to family, a saying that drives to the heart of Steve Waters’ adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The true meaning of the full saying comes to the forefront and is translated into a tale of love in all of its forms, set against the cold backdrop of a UN refugee centre. Directed by Christopher Haydon, the dark, bleak and shabby background of the setting lets the themes of the play and actors’ performance shine.
There are lessons to be learned here, and if we do, the world will be much better for it
A story within a story, the main narrative of The Caucasian Chalk Circle tells the story of Grusha Vashnadze (Carrie Hope Fletcher), who after a coup in Gruzinia that results in the execution of the Governor, flees with his son, Michael (Daniel Aiden Matembe) after the Governor’s Wife (Joanna Kirkland) abandons him. The Caucasian Chalk Circle is the story of Grusha’s treacherous journey to the home of her brother Lavrenti (Shiv Rabheru), as she is chased by supporters of the plotters who want Michael. The Singer (Zoe West) narrates the story, leading the cast into folk song and acting as a guide and a conscience that allows us to see into Grusha’s mind as she grapples with self-preservation and her sense of duty.
The framing of The Caucasian Chalk Circle creates some distance between us and Grusha’s story, but the modernity of the initial setting creates an urgency that we cannot help but respond to. Just as Brecht used the Nazi occupation of Europe to frame the initial play, Waters uses the current refugee crisis and war in Ukraine (an offhanded ‘are they Russian?’ comment by Fletcher in reference to the Singer is not lost on us) to personify the large-scale ethnic conflict and arguments on a smaller scale with the characters onstage. Waters has not changed Brecht’s play, just re-contextualised it - just as the Singer does - in a way that we can understand the issues explored.
Beyond the setting of the refugee crisis, there are other modern parallels to be made. The characters in the story are archetypes we are all too familiar with; the privileged rulers who are deaf to the pleas of the masses, the wealthy motivated by protecting their assets and rejecting anyone not part of their circle. The realistic incorporation of the most basic scale of human suffering created by Haydon’s direction creates a real sense of injustice, of anger. His direction emphasises Grusha’s warmth, humanity and love against the background of self-interest and survivalism, leading to questions about human nature. Oli Townsend’s set and costumes create a sharp contrast between the traditional and modern aspects of the design, making associations and comparisons between characters as we see the different aesthetics used. Townsend never takes us out of the refugee centre, utilising bed frames and the boxes of supplies above the stage to create a relative dichotomy; we are aware that what we are seeing is a play or a folk tale, but the realism in the background of the refugee centre means that it may as well be a story that we hear about on the news.
In total The Caucasian Chalk Circle has 50 characters split among nine actors, but there is a duality and almost intechangeable nature to each actors' roles; who they are in the context of the refugee centre and who they are in the story. For example Joanna Kirkland’s UN worker becomes the Governor’s Wife, both people in privileged positions that are higher than everyone else hierarchically and separate from the suffering.
In Grusha, Haydon’s direction and Fletcher’s talent as a performer meet to create the beating heart of this show, and going forward, Fletcher’s adaptation of the role should go down in theatre legend. Fletcher shows such intensity in her emotions that it spills over to us, and makes us incredibly aware of our own wellbeing and instincts. For Grusha is the only active character; Fletcher chooses the role whilst the other roles are imposed upon the ensemble by the Singer. From that point on Fletcher appears almost defiant in the face of the circumstances faced by the character. For a majority of the performance, she is acting to a teddy bear, a mere representation of a child, so it only speaks to her immense talent as an actress that she is able to generate such feelings of love and pathos in us in what is essentially a vacuum. Fletcher shows such tenderness, such love in her performance we can’t help but feel a tug of yearning. We feel her conflict, her heightened sense of injustice, her furious passion and protectiveness as and when required.
Through her we learn the lessons of Brecht, that the universe does eventually balance out, despite the intrinsically hostile nature of the collective world. Jonathan Slinger’s Azdak is the personification of this, and whilst it takes a minute to process the logic behind his words, his disillusionment with the system and world that he’s in mirrors our own. Slinger cleverly hides the wisdom of the character behind his jester-like performance, but it just goes to show that an ordinary man is an honest man.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is about war, the different types of people we see in a crisis, about helping others when everything falls to chaos and what really matters when everything else is lost. In this raw and emotional tale about putting aside your own needs to help someone more vulnerable than you, we cannot help but see where we, our governments and representatives fall short. There are lessons to be learned here, and if we do, the world will be much better for it.