FringeReview UK 2020
Directed by Lyndsey Turner with design by Lizzie Clachan and Lighting by Peter Mumford, Sound Design Christopher Shutt.
Forty minutes but a world later you ask what other contemporary theatre there is outside Caryl Churchill.
Every play’s a new departure, nothing repeated save certain echoes in characters. Churchill’s very language has accelerated from recognizable, if weird analogue to digital flecks and shivering miniatures. And like some venturi-tube it returns compressed to slower expression; utterly changed.
When Caryl Churchill’s Far Away premiered at the Royal Court in 2000 it seemed the final metaphor on Balkanisation with the Balkan War recently ended. In just over a year its stark prescience seemed unnerving, especially to Americans who saw it in early 2002.
More than just asking what the inhuman condition is, Churchill uses increasingly fantastical scenes and language to arrive at calm insanity: ours. Lyndsey Turner directs with a hallucinatory tread. The swiftest things are silent.
With devastation beguiled in a child’s questions we slip on blood. Joan’s staying with her aunt Harper’s farm – Jessica Hynes, makes a welcome return to the stage, and has a fine line in retreat from what she said before. Lizzie Clachan’s design after a large fibreglass tank has lifted off is a comfy armchair and a sewing box on red carpet. The sewing box is taken by young Joan to the next scene, which needs one.
Joan interrogates and ambushes Harper, to reveal the truth of what Joan’s seen. Joan only drips this, constantly wrong-footing Harper and ourselves. It’s mesmerising; Turner directs at an Alpha-rhythmed nocturnal pace. Once lies have been burned off a quiet fierce challenge to Harper drags out the truth that yes a child in that group was beaten, but she’s the child of a traitor. Hynes moves with the deft assurance of a politician, who lies till they can’t, smoothly retreats to half-truth. Abbiegail Mills in this performance is outstanding as the child who won’t stop.
Later, that same child Joan flourishes as a young graduate fashioning hats (courtesy of MA students, London College of Fashion) for curious parades, encouraged by fellow-hatter Todd who’s attracted to her. Clachan’s laid two workbenches side-by-side in a kind of timeless mid-20th century working environment, much like the farm. The couple’s work-clothes have an old-fashioned comfortable mid-century feel too, out of some Ealing period comedy.
There’s a suite of scenes punctuated with flashes of dark. Lighting by Peter Mumford is everything you’d expect in such a short gamut. Not just stark antimonies of light, but dim glows inside the fibreglass tank, like people incarcerated, at the opening. There’s numinous dark outside the cosy farmhouse or workplace.
Aislng Loftus’ Joan is now someone pragmatically used to what ‘trials’ are about, indeed they’re intimately connected to these spectacular hats – Joan’s bright green one with fronds counterpointing a phallic blue and white rocket from Simon Manyonda’s quietly besotted Todd suggests a semi-conscious genital display between them, like exotic birds.
Todd’s the nearest we get to adult rebellion, someone who wants to denounce corruption, feed a journalist some red meat. Six years older, fired by Joan’s brilliance as a designer and haunted innocence, he seems the idealist young Joan had quietly folded away. It’s an office romance with hats.
Then you’re launched into an reveal of such silent devastation – not a word’s spoken – you want to label it with your own. Rimbaud’s opening to his Illuminations (in English) might summarize Churchill’s position. ‘I, I alone hold the key to this monstrous parade.’ You’ll have to see this, the nub of what we’ve heard described and basis of the final scene. Whether or not you’ve read the play – it’s read by all Churchill-lovers with few chances to see it staged – you’ll never forget what happens next. Christopher Shutt’s sound design moves from rural silence to Strauss I’s Radetsky-March, beautifully chosen for its reactionary sentiments towards 1848.
Finally Joan’s absconded back to Harper’s farm to meet Todd, now her husband. Before her arrival Harper harshly quizzes Todd on a world where wasps butterflies elephants and deer are enemies, like computer programmers, even weather; then there’s Russian swimmers, Thai butchers, Latvian dentists linked to Swedes. France is always hostile, but grass? Later we find Bolivians have been doing something with gravity. And there’s a neat reversal as Harper ambushes Todd. Deer have been onside for three weeks.
Churchill’s unrelenting as sympathetic Joan launching quietly into Todd’s arms relates what she’s had to do; then releases a monologue at once a rational interrogation of a mad world, and an Ophelia-like mad scene in itself, spoken by someone who’s woken into it.
Turner and cast measure this work with haunted straightness. Churchill’s intricacy demands it. There’s scrupulous fright, a simmering fear underscoring exchanges in the first and last scene, as Harper addresses the young couple. That office romance seems the only brightness in more ways than hats – then you realize what brightness is for.
Stalled in her post-1997 efforts to write a response to Blair’s world, Churchill dug deep then came out to an upside-down one. Still, Churchill refuses yet another dystopic paradigm. She asks the dangerous question of what’s innate in us to conjure them in the first place. 82 this year, no-one has caught up with Churchill, so far ahead that it’ll take a few light years to realize she’s been our greatest playwright since Beckett and Pinter wrote their last substantial works: getting on forty years. And for some of us, before that. The last staging was a situationist essay by the Young Vic in 2014, tortuous to get to. Now we have an outstanding revival. Hesitating?