Royal Court Theatre
Quays Theatre at The Lowry, Salford
Caryl Churchill’s latest work premièred in January 2016, and several of its key moments and features have already been well-discussed. But it retains the power to shock and surprise. It is a challenging, politically charged and humorous play; so, a Caryl Churchill play.
It’s also short. At barely fifty minutes, and confined to a mostly static staging, it might appear to be a lesser work. The elliptical sentences, sometimes incoherent dialogue, and the fragmentary nature of the scenes closely recall Churchill’s previous full play, Love & Information.
But this is no mere off-cut. Rather, it’s a remarkable and compact work which allows Churchill to blend astute observations of the everyday with the weightier fears that might lie demon-like on your chest when you try to get to sleep.
A woman stands outside a garden fence, peering through a gap. She’s invited in, and joins three others—all women in their sixties or upwards—as they sit out in the scorching blue of a late summer’s afternoon and reminisce, debate, confide; they recount deep life secrets and avoid spoilers for TV shows.
James Macdonald, Churchill’s regular director over recent years, is on duty here. There are remarkably assured performances from Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson. These, combined with Macdonald’s direction, work to make strange the banalities, lurches and circularities of the everyday chatter of these women.
Churchill’s text in these sequences is by no means arch or abstract—she is (as in Love & Information) a forensic observer of the tics and ellipses of ordinary speech—but the production slightly stylises the delivery so that we are allowed to see this in a new light. Any flinch into a more naturalistic performance would have shattered the effect, but the direction holds its nerve unblinkingly and the performers walk a delicate tightrope with awesome grace.
Miriam Buether’s design continues this uncanny valley. There is a garden, which has a shed and an abundance of real-looking greenery. There’s a searing blue sky—but is it cloudless or is it heat-hazed and empty? Is it just a set? Christopher Shutt’s sound design likewise plays between commonplace—cars’ bass systems booming by—and creepy—the buzz and hum of overworked neon.
And the writer seems to be enjoying herself. She gives us acutely observed psychology and dialogue, she dripfeeds character as if it’s easy. But that’s not all: the play also shifts mode into a series of sometimes devastating confessional monologues, laying bare the pains and self-laceration of anxiety, of depression, as the other characters sit motionless around the speaker.
And that’s not all either, as the sequences of dialogue are also interrupted when the domestic setting disappears to show Linda Bassett (the outsider to the group, Mrs Jarrett) in a scorched neon square, narrating a dystopian nightmare scenario crammed with perfectly weighted absurdities and excoriating politics.
These slabs of beautifully ugly imagery come slamming down at regular intervals in the play, forcing you to listen carefully, to try to piece together the world being described and how it fits into (or follows on from) that of the garden furniture and the domestic debates.
Yet this is not all either: the setting and pacing of the play shifts uncomfortably but undeniably effectively under your gaze. Just when you think you have a grasp on the structures, they budge again.
The French writer Nathalie Sarraute’s first published prose was a collection of micro-fictions called Tropisms, in which she set out to capture in the minutest detail the tiny internal shifts in attitude, interaction, mood, psychology, relationship which underlie our everyday lives, and which cause some of our biggest decisions and strongest emotional states: ‘no words express them, not even those of the interior monologue—for they develop and pass through us very rapidly in the form of frequently very sharp, brief sensations, without our perceiving clearly what they are’. It was this writing that Churchill’s striking, memorable fragments of everyday estrangement made me think of. And that’s not all.
Reviewer: Mark Smith