Writer: Caryl Churchill
Director: James Macdonald
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
Caryl Churchill’s new play, produced by The Royal Court in London, is venturing on a small tour after playing two sold out runs in London. A small tour it may be – taking in Salford, Cambridge and Bristol – but it has just returned from a visit stateside after two weeks in New York.
For so long, the cliche that there are no part for older actresses has rung true. Carol Churchill’s new play, in
true feminist style, could be considered as a direct address against this. The character list at the front of the programme/play text lists Sally, Vi, Lena and Mrs. Jarrett and a very rare stage direction informs “that they are all at least seventy”. With just a fifty minute playing time this is a short burst into the absurd and an insight into Churchill’s quirky play-making brain.Faced with a high, wooden garden fence onstage as we enter the theatre, there is no mistaking that Miriam Buether’s design is there to compliment Churchill’ s desire to play with the fourth wall and challenge the idea of theatre. The fence very quickly disappears and we are in the company of three ladies and their neighbour sat on four chairs throughout summer’s afternoon as they chit chat their ay through whatever seems to fall into their head at that very moment. Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson remain static throughout, punctuated only my Mrs. Jarrett’s bizarre monologues of a dystopian or alternative future at the front of the stage set against pulsating red neon picture frame lighting. The dialogue is non-naturalistic. Flicking through the script, their interjecting lines are not categorised by Churchill with dots or dashes, which are often clues to actors and directors of how to interpret them. Instead, there is no punctuation which leaves gaps between speech patterns creating an oddness and incredulity that, presumably, was the intention of Churchill and director James Macdonald.
We learn very little about any of the characters throughout their interjected, non-sequiturs. One lady may or may not have murdered her husband many years ago, one is deeply depressed and another is an all-consuming phobia of cats – all punctuated with Mrs. Jarrett’s direct addresses to the audience that become increasingly more of an assault on us. If all this sounds a little absurd then it is. At one point in my notebook, I had to write “What is this play about?”. But I have the feeling that I was asking the wrong question. Perhaps the question I should have been asking myself was “What am I witnessing?” and to not worry about classifying a play in the ‘conventional’ way.
Throughout her career, Churchill has been a writer that has pushed the boundaries of what we understand to be a play. Character, structure, style and dialogue are arbitrary things that other writers may obsess over but for Churchill they seem like a small ingredient in the soup. The problem with plays that border on performance art is that they will always draw criticism from those who want to understand. With a pedigree of acting, directing and writing talent on display it can easily be accused of being a case of the emperor’s new clothes.
Churchill’s long tradition of breaking from the ‘norm’ in theatre by using Brechtian alienating techniques will always, inevitably, alienate much of her audience. For many of the theatre studies students in the audience, they will see which side of the fence they fall. For me, however, the wooden garden fence is a little too high
> Reviewed 7 March 2017