FringeReview UK 2019
Directed by James Macdonald, designed by Miriam Buether with costumes by Nicky Gillibrand, Jack Knowles’ lighting and sound by Christopher Shutt. Action directors are Rc-Annie Ltd.
Caryl Churchill’s protean inability to repeat herself means that Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. – four progressively longer, obliquely connected plays – is something never seen before. Formally restless, certain themes mark this dramatist’s recent work: linking myth, storytelling our way out of chaos.
Otherwise Churchill’s broken another glass wall. And beyond it there’s another, as when the curtains down we’re treated to vaudevillian lights around the pros-arch as an unnamed juggler fills the interval changes.
Churchill’s most recent play at the Court was the 20-minute Pigs and Dogs in 2017, but her substantial Escaped Alone from 2015 was given a second run earlier that year, and in the most substantial play Imp, there’s an echo of its suburban nonchalance fronting an abyss, and a whiff of a 1997 piece, Heart’s Desire.
These plays though explore Escaped Alone’s fables in a more literary way. Plays frequently reference classics like The Oresteia in Kill, Or Bluebeard referencing Bluebeard’s Castle with Bartok’s opera sounding ominously; and in Imp, there’s King Lear, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, As You like It, Oedipus. Plots turned to urban myths.
Glass. is the briefest, strangest and most poignant, where four characters perch suspended on a platform or mantlepiece in black space. Rebekah Murrell is the glass girl who looks normal enough but whose adventures take on abused boyfriend Patrick McNamee. With Louisa Harland and Kwabena Ansah, they morph to schoolfriends, the girl’s mother, the boy’s father, and in one scene a clock, vase and red dog. There’s a Romeo and Juliet theme – something that recurs.
Kill. has god Tom Mothersdale perched on a cloud weighing up with sardonic nonchalance the Oresteia and its backstory, constantly reminding us ‘we can’t do everything, we don’t exist’; as one of two children below (Caelan Edie or Leo Ralt) shout from a menu of random words.
Four friends – Deborah Findlay, Toby Jones, Sarah Niles and Sule Rimi – of the eponymous Bluebeard. come to terms at a dinner party with his being a serial killer. He’d asked one of them to marry him ‘before Suzanne’ the third of his enumerated victims, as six bloodied dresses descend and one makes a fashion decision: ‘a high quality reproduction… but washable’. It’s not even that Bluebeard ‘played the piano so beautifully’ but the quartet’s commodifying and accommodating that’s so striking. And their own adulterous ripples both heedless and suddenly fragile.
Four of the ten-strong cast deployed throughout the first three works – Findlay, Jones, Mothersdale, Harland – return in Imp, as if the actors themselves provide a culmination-point as directed by James Macdonald. Into the lives of two cousins – Findlay’s former nurse Dot jailed for abuse in hospital, Jones’ obsessive marathon-training Jimmy – two young people arrive, drawn into their world. We never move from sofa and chair, which Dots occupies throughout as narratives, myths and reports swirl.
Young second cousin Niamh from Ireland is a young woman whose sole relatives these two now are. Mothersdale’s recently-homeless Rob seems a random recruit. But as the younger couple pair off, break, then re-encounter each other we see Jimmy’s shrouded impulses and Dot’s obsession with something stoppered in a bottle she fears to let out. Even when she wishes to curse, and surprised by results. Jones’ Shakesperean tales seem like options they’ve avoided exploring, or fail to. In Imp. as in Glass. there’s a frail tenderness between two characters not always encountered in Churchill’s work.
These are exemplary performances, particularly Findlay and Jones. The other striking character is Miriam Buether’s set, behind that music-hall façade, aided by Christopher Shutt’s eerie and homely sounds. With Glass. it’s a platform in space – Jack Knowles’ characteristically surgical lighting comes into its own here where the four individuals sit and stand. Kill. features a cloud on which Tom Mothersdale‘s god sits, above a child seated with a book below. Bluebeard’s friends edge round a table with those dresses (the acme of Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes), and Imp’s naturalistic living room hovers otherwise in black space. Here Buether edges mythic void round it. Which is how Churchill occupies theatre space. For a time you feel that beyond her world, nothing else quite seems to exist.