What If If Only – Royal Court Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Caryl Churchill

Director: James Macdonald

One of the reasons why Caryl Churchill is rightly regarded as one of our greatest living playwrights is that not a single word is ever wasted. That’s especially true for her latest work What If If Only, which crams in more content and depth into its mere 20 minutes than many other plays manage in two hours.

Inside Miriam Buether’s grey cube of a set, John Heffernan’s Someone holds a one-sided conversation with his dead love, frustrated that he gets no response. His unresolved grief is represented by Linda Bassett, the personification of a Future now denied to him.

The resulting conversation sees Bassett switch between many possible futures, each one the consequence of a “what if” scenario, or “if only” one event had occurred differently.

Elsewhere in the arts, Marvel’s films and television shows are exploring the multiverse theory, where each possible future creates timelines that diverge and multiply. Churchill’s exploration of the concept is similar but hews more closely to the Aristotelian idea of future contingents, where branches are more metaphorical than practical – a form of branching actualism, as opposed to the MCU’s branching realism.

Viewed through the lens of the playwright’s wryly comedic perspective, it is a beguiling approach to the philosophical representation of free will and consequences and, as with all Churchill’s best works, bears the implications of its big ideas lightly.

What is dangled under Someone’s nose is that the first Future he meets could only exist if the events that precipitated the loss of his partner had not happened. While he yearns to speak to the ghost of his dead partner, this Future is already a ghost. Asking ourselves “what if, if only” about events that have already happened is futile.

As Bassett somersaults between a multiplicity of futures, Heffernan in comparison maintains his persona of confused grief throughout. The appearance of young Jasmine Nyenya (in a role shared with Samir Simon-Keegan) as an emphatically definite Future brings an air of optimism and joy.

But if that future will definitely happen, what does that say about our free will from the present into the beyond? That is, perhaps, a philosophical question for another day.

Continues until 23 October 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Short, light, impactful musing on grief and consequences

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