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.

Bakkhai, Almeida Theatre

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As an essay on theatre, Bakkhai has it all. There’s doubling, role-playing, one thing standing in for another. There’s the clash of complex psychological insight and the wild, raw and visceral. There’s dressing up and fluid identities. And there’s the god of theatre himself Dionysos, shrugging on human form for a performance of his own.

As theatre itself, though, it’s another question. It’s not that the Almeida’s production, directed by James Macdonald, is untheatrical. There are some brilliant visual snapshots, usually heralding the arrival of Dionysos and accompanied by Peter Mumford’s vivid bursts of light, while there’s an implicit, self-aware acknowledgement of the audience throughout. That’s not to mention the uncanniness of the whole thing, its determined strangeness. But the driving narrative of Dionysos, in a holy rage and determined to get his own back on the family who snubbed him, often feels oddly underpowered.

That said, the two central performances are hard to fault. From the moment he saunters on stage, throwing a conspiratorial glance to the audience as he discloses his godly identity, Ben Whishaw is utterly in control. His long-haired Dionysos is sinuous, snake-like, ready to shed this latest skin at any moment. And damn he can rock a dress. This vengeful god-turned-human is slippery and androgynous, oddly delicate in his might. He doesn’t need the borrowed authority of masculine aggression; he is power divine, effortlessly enchanting his scores of female devotees and crushing kings with the lightest flick of his wrist.

One such king is Bertie Carvel’s Pentheus, young leader of Thebes and a politician through and through. Where Dionysos is wild and uninhibited, Pentheus is rational and repressed, as buttoned-up as his immaculate suit jacket. Carvel, however, slips the suggestion of something else beneath Pentheus’s slick exterior, so that he bristles with latent curiosity even as he condemns the frolics of Dionysos’s followers. There’s a delicious scene between him and Whishaw in which the latter – posing as Dionysos’s human messenger – is persuading the disgruntled king to slip on a dress and spy on the bakkhai. Hesitancy barely masks eagerness, while a sly grin curls across Whishaw’s lips.

When Carvel drags up, though, first in disguise to infiltrate the Bakkhic rites, then later as Pentheus’s blood-drenched mother Agave, there are unfortunate echoes of his revelatory Miss Trunchbull in Matilda the Musical. I was half-expecting a cry of “maggots!” as Agave rages in her grief. Whishaw, too, fares less well when he steps into other roles, his distraught and helpless messenger not half as compelling as the scheming god who pulls all the strings. In a nod to the conventions of Greek tragedy, the trio of actors is completed by Kevin Harvey, smoothly metamorphosing from old man Kadmos to younger citizens of Thebes, though often in the shadow of Whishaw and Carvel’s sparring partners.

Then there’s the chorus. At first, the ivy-garlanded crowd of singers are startlingly other-worldly, their piercing, discordant wails a little reminiscent of the sculptural song of Return to the Voice. Just as Whishaw is an effortless deity, they really do sound like beings in communion with some strange elsewhere. After an hour and a half, though, their persistent chanting and spookily synchronised speech grates. There’s simply too much of their musical Dionysian worship, sharply putting the brakes on the momentum built up in each of the scenes between Whishaw and Carvel and never quite integrating with the rest of the action.

The issue is essentially one of tone. Bakkhai is a collision of the civilised and the elemental, of the familiar and the strange. We get that here, but often those two conflicting registers don’t so much lock horns as awkwardly jar. And beyond Whishaw’s performance, there’s never a full, unleashed sense of the wild, whether in Antony McDonald’s tentatively earthy design or in the over-polished (and over-used) chorus. The ideas are all there, but theatrically it lacks the impact it’s straining for.

Photo: Marc Brenner.

The Wolf from the Door, Royal Court

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Middle England is revolting. Flower arrangers are building bombs, the Morris dancers have their axes at the ready and the village choir are armed with AK47s. In Rory Mullarkey’s new play, violent overthrow is instigated not on city streets but in provincial church halls. Unlike the urban unrest that Alecky Blythe has attempted to capture over at the Almeida, the Royal Court is staging an altogether more parochial brand of revolution.

On the surface, this vision of OAPs raiding Buckingham Palace and pub quizzers razing the City of London to the ground is deliciously absurd. The idea that cosy rural villages are brimming with hidden discontent is not necessarily new, but there’s still plenty of comic mileage in revealing the violent predilections of hobbyists preparing for armed insurrection. Beneath that very English humour of incongruity, however, is a much trickier play.

At the close of Men in the Cities, Chris Goode poses the implicit, troubling question of whether now is the time for violence. Whether it’s even a question is debateable, but certainly the possibility of violence is powerfully present in the final sequence. Or, in Goode’s words, “fuck ‘em”. Mullarkey’s play imagines that violence into reality, but in ways that vividly, surreally animate its complications. Must a two finger salute to the state be accompanied by machine gun fire?

Lady Catherine, the steely aristocrat spearheading the revolution dreamed up by Mullarkey, certainly thinks so. “This is the only way to start again,” she insists, briskly preparing to smash apart her own privilege. The ever-extraordinary Anna Chancellor inhabits the role as only she can, somehow blending cool, wry disdain with an incendiary – yet always dignified – passion for radical change.

The play follows Catherine and Leo, her rootless young protégé, as they spark the uprising from coffee mornings, supermarkets and roadside cafes, sending out a flare to community groups across the country. Lady Catherine advocates “the beautiful violence which brings change”, but with seemingly little thought as to what that change might actually be. Equality is the one certainty; everything else is a bit woolly.

This vagueness about the new order is just one of the many facets of Mullarkey’s revolutionary vision that make it far more interesting and problematic than it initially appears. This is no straightforward rebellion. Aside from the absurdity of a-capella groups and historical re-enactors tearing down the halls of government, there is something complicatedly ironic about a society brought down from the top. For all the distrust of hierarchy, it is still the toffs who lead the way.

The leader who is to be installed when these revolutionary elites honourably allow themselves to be liquidated, meanwhile, is an intriguingly blank slate. Leo, a naive yet mysterious figure as played by Calvin Demba, has no job, no home, no family. And like the elusive Messiah figure at the heart of Mike Bartlett’s 13, whose only belief is belief, he is remarkably empty of opinions. This unlikely, semi-Biblical saviour, paired with the surprising source of the play’s revolutionary fervour, seems almost to skewer the whole possibility of violent overthrow.

To complicate matters further, ambivalence around revolutionary violence is built right into the theatrical framework of James Macdonald’s production. Not so much as a drop of blood is spilled on stage all evening, as visceral brutality is replaced with the cool, distanced reading of stage directions (“he chops his head off”; “she shoots her in the head”). In a theatre with such a history of represented violence, it’s a curious choice, and one that immediately raises a question mark over the use of force. It also begs questions of the whole practice of representation on stage, not quite taking a torch to theatrical convention but certainly tearing away at some of its illusions.

Tom Pye’s design is similarly multi-layered and self-aware. There’s a feeling of the community hall about the green plastic chairs and fold-up tables that stand in for all of the play’s locations, flanked by village fete-style white marquees in place of wings. It all beautifully sends up the bunting festooned “Keep Calm and Carry On” aesthetic, without ever being too smug about it. I’m less convinced, however, by the large screen at the back of the stage, onto which is projected scene numbers and images to indicate the setting at any given time. It adds to both the strangeness and constructedness of the drama, but to uncertain effect.

Uncertainty is a lingering sensation throughout The Wolf from the Door. Take the relationship between Catherine and Leo. At one level, their dynamic embeds a crucial question about the efficacy of individual care and action versus the greater ambitions of ideological and systemic change. Or, to put it another way, what use is revolution without compassion? But this central pairing is also trying to do something else, culminating in a lacklustre and surprisingly sentimental couple of closing scenes which frustratingly undercut much of what has gone before.

For all its wonkiness, however, there’s something compelling and oddly galvanising about this peculiar allegorical drama. It also features some truly stunning scenes, the standout among these being a one-sided exchange between a mini-cab driver and passengers Catherine and Leo, which is a blackly comic combination of the mundane and Beckettian. From the bleak patter of the writing to the precise rhythms of Pearce Quigley’s delivery, it is exquisitely excruciating. And perhaps it’s here, in presenting the indignity of this everyday despair, that the play’s real politics reside.

Photo: Stephen Cummiskey.