Writer: Caryl Churchill
Director: James Macdonald
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Greek myths and the plots of Shakespeare give substance to Caryl Churchill’s new plays currently at the Royal Court. Over three short plays, each lasting around 15 minutes, and one play lasting about an hour, Churchill questions whether we can live our own lives or whether we are governed by fate. However, Miriam Buether’s breath-taking design eclipses these philosophical debates in James Macdonald’s stylish production.
The young actors in Glass appear to be suspended on a ledge, floating in the middle of a void. It’s not quite clear how they have got there, and their positions seem precarious. One of the girls is made from glass, but her boyfriend promises that he will keep her safe and not break her. This allegory on the fragility of youth works well, and ends spectacularly, but is over too quickly.
Kill summarises Greek myths to highlight the violence and the brutality of human life while the Gods, who we have invented, sit and watch, powerless to intervene. As one of the Gods, Tom Mothersdale delivers Churchill’s monologue with just the right amounts of comedy and rage, while floating on a cloud in a night sky, another stunning set by Buether.
The oddest play of the bunch is Bluebeard where the friends of a serial killer discuss his crimes, and their connection to him. They seek celebrity if only amongst themselves, pushing themselves into the myths they create around him. One says the murderer was once a good friend, while another claims that she nearly married him. Sarah Niles is wonderful here. But of all the plays this one seems like a scene from a longer piece, rather than a self-contained drama.
The best is the longest, Imp, which takes up all of the second half. Imp is also the most traditional and looks the most conventional on the page. Toby Jones is Jimmy who lives with his asthmatic cousin, Dot, an excellent Deborah Findlay. She stays inside while he goes out running to alleviate his depression. He returns full of gossipy stories that sound gleaned from Romeo and Juliet or Midsummer Night’s Dream. The pair is visited by a family member Niamh (a brittle Louisa Harland), who is new to Britain from Ireland and who is scared that she won’t be able to resist the temptation to throw herself in front of a speeding tube train.
Another visitor is homeless Rob (an almost unrecognisable Mothersdale) who regales the cousins with stories of the countries he’s travelled to or places he’ll visit, creating his own mythology. Dot has a secret power that could change people’s lives forever but she refuses to use it, trusting in fate instead. The hour passes quickly with the short scenes ending in total darkness around a carpet that seems skewered in a vacuum.
Perhaps Imp should be the only play of the evening, as the others in comparison appear slight or underdeveloped. It would be interesting to see these pieces without the elaborate design to see if a focus on the words would bring different results. It’s always worth waiting for a new play by Caryl Churchill, but this is not quite the event we’d hoped for.
Runs until 12 October 2019 | Image: Johan Persson