Escaped Alone, Royal Court

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Originally written for Exeunt.

It’s not just the tea that’s brewing in Caryl Churchill’s new play. Beneath the sharing of a nice cuppa, something much nastier is simmering away. While four older women sip from their mugs in a sun-bathed garden, premonitions of catastrophe lurk behind their innocuous chit-chat, breaking through in pitch-black interjections. Over the course of less than an hour, the world ends seven times over: with floods, with disease, with fire. Sugar, anyone?

Escaped Alone is a bristling, baffling thing. Running at a brisk 55 minutes, it’s somehow huge and minute all at once. Compared with the formal somersaults of some of Churchill’s previous work, though, the structure is deceptively simple. It’s split into two alternating parts: in one, old friends Sally, Vi and Lena drink tea with neighbour Mrs Jarrett in Sally’s garden; in the other, Mrs Jarrett steps out of the frame of this scenario to deliver bleak missives from humankind’s downfall. Or, as the Royal Court’s blurb pithily puts it: tea and catastrophe.

Churchill’s title is borrowed from the Book of Job (“I only am escaped alone to tell thee”), and there is something oddly Biblical about this play, with its visions of apocalypse and its undercurrents of allegory. Linda Bassett’s affable yet enigmatic Mrs Jarrett plays the unlikely harbinger of doom, sent to warn us all of out-of-control, man-made catastrophes. Or perhaps warn is the wrong word, as these various Armageddons are all relayed in the past tense, laced with the bitter tang of inevitability. There is nothing to be done.

There are nightmarish touches of brilliance to these imagined disasters. In one, we are told – with characteristically surreal Churchill flair – that “the chemicals leaked through the cracks in the money”. Another conjures a world in which food is siphoned off to television programmes, leaving the general public to starve in front of cookery shows. There’s visceral horror, in images of survivors trapped alone underground and people eating rashers of their own fat, knocking up against inky dark humour – even if the gags do feel a little easy at times, airdropping in wry topical references to selfies and property developers.

Churchill is having no less fun in the garden-bound half of the play, in which her female quartet execute scenes of meticulously choreographed gossip. They chat about their grandchildren, about their pasts, about what superpower they’d like to have. This chorus of banalities is all delivered in distinctive Churchill half-sentences, clipped and careful. There’s clearly a shared vocabulary among these old friends. And again it’s rich with terrific moments. In one sequence, the women simply sing The Crystals’ hit “Da Doo Ron Ron” and it’s an absolute joy. Each character also takes their turn to break from the conversation and segue into a strange, disturbing monologue. It’s Sally’s inner voice that startles most, spilling out a breathless and absurd speech about her debilitating phobia of cats. Delivered with mounting intensity by the excellent Deborah Findlay, shoulders rounding protectively while hands nervously flutter, it’s one of the show’s highlights.

It’s the join between the play’s two halves that is more troubling – both interestingly and frustratingly so. You could say crisis and tea are never far apart, but otherwise the relationship between garden and apocalypse is left deliberately opaque. James Macdonald’s taut production at once maintains this ambiguity and gestures towards possible links. The small pauses in conversation – subtle and precise – suggest something more beneath the chatter. Miriam Buether’s design, meanwhile, has more than one nod to the void opened up by Mrs Jarrett’s bleak interludes. The garden, overgrown and vivid and lit by a bright, warm glow, is a sort of idyll, but there’s an odd emptiness to the grey-blue skies above that makes it feel as though it could be the last green refuge in the universe. Looked at this way, its contrast with the blackness that engulfs the intervening scenes, intensified by a flickering red neon surround, seems less stark than it first appears. For all that, though, it’s hard sometimes to fight the suspicion that these are simply two interesting scenarios to riff on, and that the whole is given less attention than its (admittedly intriguing) parts.

Nonetheless, Escaped Alone is never less than watchable, thanks in huge part to its fantastic cast. Much has been made of the fact that this is a play for four women in their sixties and seventies – a demographic still seen with shameful rarity on our stages. While the swift running time means that we can only ever get shards of these characters’ personalities, they’re pretty damn fascinating shards, giving the actors plenty to work with. Alongside Bassett’s slippery Mrs Jarrett and Findlay’s cat-fearing Sally, Kika Markham does delicate work as Lena – introverted yet occasionally spiky (“I do get out,” she indignantly insists) – while June Watson peels back surprising layers in unexpected ex-con Vi.

If there’s anything that holds the piece together, it’s the incessant, latent fear of the present moment that we live in. The paralysing terror that Sally feels when confronted with the idea of cats and the wilful delusion that has become a coping mechanism (“I have to believe there are no cats. And then briefly the joy of that”) might well stand in for any number of twenty-first century threats: ISIS, climate change, global pandemics. Mrs Jarrett’s catastrophes, meanwhile, are a potent cocktail of ancient fears and very contemporary preoccupations. It can often feel that we are living in the end times – or perhaps just on the brink of them – a feeling that Churchill uncannily captures. This is, to quote REM, the end of the world as we know it.

Now then, who wants a cup of tea?

Photo: Johan Persson.

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire begins with a feast. In the National Theatre’s new production, the safety curtain opens to reveal a vast table heaving with food. Overstuffed pies; plates spilling over with fruit; a whole, glistening pig. An obscene bounty. Around the edges, heedlessly stuffing their faces throughout the people’s battles and declarations, sit a shadowy host of figures in gowns. The poor scrabble while the rich gorge.

It’s one hell of a metaphor – and one hell of a table, at that. Es Devlin’s raked design spreads greedily across the stage of the Lyttelton Theatre, occupying our entire field of vision. Above, a huge slanted mirror reflects back the candlelit opulence, while a gilt throne looms at the back of the stage. This is what the impoverished idealists and revolutionaries of Caryl Churchill’s Civil War play, dwarfed by the finery that surrounds them, have to contend with.

Eschewing textbook Cavaliers and Roundheads for a focus on the radical far-left groupings of the Levellers, Diggers and Ranters, the sympathy of Churchill’s play lies with those dismantling the banquet. Her history is one of workers persuaded to fight by a fervent belief in the imminent arrival of Christ on earth; of radical thinkers and penniless hopers; of the heady possibilities of a nation without a monarch; and, finally, of those who would freely distribute rights to speech and land being crushed by those unwilling to relinquish their power. In this telling, it’s a war fought on heavenly promises for ultimately earthly spoils.

That’s where, again, the central metaphor comes in. Bit by bit, the opening feast is stripped back to the earth from which it came, as Devlin’s set undergoes an extraordinary transformation. But while the people may till that newly uncovered soil, it soon returns to the hands of a small elite. As revealed by the Putney Debates of autumn 1647, slap-bang in the middle of the play, the Civil War quickly becomes a battle not for freedom but for land. For Oliver Cromwell and his allies, this is the sticking point; democracy is not to come at the price of their privileged property rights.

Churchill’s is a play full of proclamations, of speeches grand and simple. We, the audience, are very deliberately addressed, positioned almost as witnesses. During the pivotal Putney Debates, the house lights are gently raised, daring us to speak up. Later, Steffan Rhodri’s butcher stares right out at us, refusing to sell us any more meat. We’ve had more than our fill.

All that speaking, though, doesn’t always make for compelling drama. Lyndsey Turner’s production is a gorgeous thing to look at, with all the light, shade and careful composition of a series of paintings, yet like paintings the scenes too often feel static and poised. The rawness of anger and revolution has been given a pretty, polished sheen. There are some briefly breathtaking moments of theatricality – the voluminous tablecloth taking on a life of its own, or the wooden slats of the table being made to give way to the soil beneath – but for the most part it’s all talk and backdrop.

There are obvious, though not forced, resonances. We live in a time that feels similarly on the brink of an apocalypse – though one heralded by climate change rather than Christ – and we’re approaching the most genuinely unpredictable general election in decades. Again, we face both possibility and despair. And seeing the show on St George’s Day, the nationalist rhetoric tugs on the ear, speaking of all the ways in which pride for one’s country has been – and continues to be – used to mobilise people. But “for England” (or Britain) only ever really means for a select few.

In a subtle touch, Soutra Gilmour’s costumes suggest that the distance of rulers from ruled is temporal as well as economic. While the aristocratic chorus are got up in period gowns, the non-specifically scruffy Diggers, Levellers and Ranters could have been plucked out of various points in history – right up to the present day. One would-be revolutionary even pulls out a thermos. This has been going on for hundreds of years, Turner’s production seems to be saying, and those at the top still have yet to change.

This plays out on an epic scale, with the already large cast (Leo Bill, Joshua James, Trystan Gravelle and Adelle Leonce all stand out from the considerable crowd) supplemented by a community company of more than 40. There are an awful lot of bodies on stage. This is less the fragmented experience of war suggested by the play’s many small scenes and vignettes and more of a mass event, with a crowd of other players always lurking in the background. While this breadth can give a powerful sense of “the people”, however, the sheer size and ambition of the production – like the lavish spread it opens with – all feels a bit much. It’s a plea for the earth coming from the heart of the feast.

A Change of Scene

Originally written for Exeunt.

Sitting folded origami-like in my seat in the balcony of the Royal Court, I can’t fight a certain nagging irritation at the peripheries of my perception. Captivating as its disconnected scenes are, there’s something distracting about Love and Information, Caryl Churchill’s new piece about the knowledge onslaught of the digital age. Or, more accurately, it’s the lack of distraction that becomes distracting in itself. Staged in Miriam Buether’s open-sided white cube of a set, each of Churchill’s 57 miniature plays is punctuated by a blackout, during which cast members and props are swiftly, invisibly switched. Each scene is surgically removed with such precision that not even a scar remains.

It’s a dizzying feat of stage management, but in its very invisibility it attracts attention. Doing away with the creaking, carefully ignored dragging on and off of props by stage hands and cast members, the production instead leaves a gaping black hole into which our latent anxieties about the craft of the stage are helplessly sucked. It might be seen as an inversion of the effect of Mike Leigh’s Grief at the National Theatre last year, in which tiny tweaks to the meticulously naturalistic set were made with unapologetic conspicuousness. Only when pronounced in either its presence or absence, it would seem, does the inherently awkward scene change impinge on the audience’s consciousness.

The scene change, as a convention, is a culturally conditioned blind spot in the illusion of representational theatre, an unseemly blip that we as an audience collectively ignore. We can handle a table being spirited in by black-clad figures in semi-darkness, or characters suddenly, inexplicably transporting chairs off with them upon their exit; this is all part of a game whose rules we are smug in the knowledge of. We know how this works. It’s the disruption of those rules and thus the unveiling of the game that causes discomfort, a discomfort that might fall under theatre academic Nicholas Ridout’s diagnosis of the “ontological queasiness” that theatre is capable of producing.

Much like Ridout’s description of the unsettling experience of a face-to-face encounter during a performance, a break in the conventions of the scene change can cause an uncertain lurch, a disconnect between the accepted illusion and the reality behind it. We’re aware not only that this isn’t real, which we knew all along even if we’d suppressed that knowledge, but that we have been willing participants in the illusion. What we’d ignored is suddenly impossible to ignore, either in its overt interference or its glaring absence. To take the resulting discomfort a step further, it might be suggested, to stick with Ridout, that our blushing reaction is caused by an acknowledgement of the economic relations at play: we’ve paid for people to shift the set around and agreed an unspoken contract to pretend that they’re not there.

So we could just see these odd dislocations as inadvertent slip-ups, of over-efficiency in the case of Love and Information and of sheer clumsiness in Grief, slip-ups that throw open the true nature of the economic exchange upon which theatre is based. But the more I think about these two examples, the more I wonder if there might be more to the simple scene change than a necessary movement of props that can choose to either conceal or expose its seams.

While at the time of watching Grief the constant to-ing and fro-ing of stage hands was a frustrating distraction and the small changes it was all in aid of seemed to be a hint that Leigh had become more accustomed to the cutting room than the stage, in retrospect it acquires more significance. Why construct such a perfectly observed sphere of naturalism, down to the last precisely placed photo frame, just to smash that illusion apart with the intrusion of backstage mechanisms?

Assuming, as I think good criticism should, that creative choices have been made for a reason, it is perhaps more productive to think of these intrusions as a deliberate jolting of the hermetically sealed suburbia in which Leigh’s protagonists exist. The changing of a vase of flowers or the tidying of a pile of newspapers, alterations so small they are laughable, could in this context be read as a comment on the essentially unchanging atmosphere of this household, a decaying stasis that is at the heart of the piece. These tiny adjustments mock the fatal lack of any real transformation. Scene change, if interpreted thus, is thematically enmeshed with scene; stagecraft reflects the content of the stage.

Likewise, the dazzling smoothness of Love and Information’s transitions would seem, when investigated in conjunction with the piece as a whole, to have a guiding rationale. Buether’s minimal container of a stage, with its clinical white glow, recalls the screen of a computer or smartphone; as actors and props appear and disappear with a magically seamless lack of fuss, the experience of viewing is strikingly similar to the experience of clicking through videos or apps. What we are witnessing is a series of downloads in an age of unlimited digital information.

These are striking but certainly not solitary examples. It would be naive and potentially insulting to suggest that no more creative thought is invested in the transition between scenes beyond which piece of furniture needs to be shifted where. But perhaps from a critical perspective, when we encounter the humble scene change, we ought to start considering this seemingly unremarkable feature of the stage as something that might alter more than just the props or signified location – as something that has the power to truly change and shape the situation being presented.