A double-bill of Caryl Churchill reminds us she is one of Britain’s finest playwrights, delivering bold metaphors and disturbing imagery
Far Away And Seagulls - Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow
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Noises Off - King’s Theatre, Glasgow
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UNDER the grey skies of England’s east coast, a strange future is taking shape. The scene is a recognisable one; a world of shipping containers heaved from hold to warehouse in huge mechanised ports, and then sent out on lorries through a landscape still beautiful but often soured by industrial agriculture, and by the muffled cries of the workers in that industry, some of them trafficked into the country in those same containers.
Yet out of that familiar setting, the great Cary Churchill weaves something nightmarishly chill and strange, in her mighty short stage poem Far Away, first seen in 2000. The opening scene, in a farmhouse kitchen on the coast, involves a young niece staying overnight with her aunt, and coming downstairs in distress, after she sees her uncle beating some people in the yard; it could be happening now, or any time in the past two decades.
Yet as the rest of this fierce 45-minute piece unfolds, the short, vivid scenes that form the action become increasingly surreal. We’re in a milliners’ workshop where two young hat-makers strike up a friendship, while making extreme, beautiful hats for an unnamed parade. We see the parade itself, like a parody fashion-show or some strange pagan ritual; and then, years later, we are back in the kitchen, in a world so darkened by compulsive conflict that nature itself is seen as taking sides, with animal species and natural forces framed in the same syntax as “the Japanese” or “the French”.
Caryl Churchill’s work, at this mind-stretching extreme, is not for everyone; some will leave, others complain. Yet Dominic Hill’s production of Far Away emerges as an utterly absorbing piece of total theatre, featuring not only three superb, tightly focused performances from Kathryn Howden, Lucy Hollis and Alasdair Hankinson, but also a leviathan of a set by Neil Haynes – a great clanking structure of ribbed metal container-doors and shutters – that itself becomes an actor in the play, illuminated and driven by Lizzie Powell’s spectacular lighting and effects, and Scott Twynholm’s astonishing soundscape.
Some may not enjoy this, a theatrical metaphor for a system in which humanity is caught, distorted, and maddened by the machine. Yet anyone who sees this show will be unable to forget it; for the boldness of its vision, for the breathtaking poetic vividness of its final monologue, and for the sheer force with which it confirms Churchill’s status as one of Britain’s greatest living stage writers, with a vision, courage and prescience second to none.
Far Away comes with a more gentle and openly satirical companion piece, in the brief 40-minute three-hander Seagulls, first seen in 1978. Here too a scene set on a beach in the east of England acquires a chilling, disturbing edge, as the central character Valery – an ordinary housewife who has begun to make a showbiz career out of her strange power to move objects with the force of her mind – encounters first a devoted young American fan, then her hard-headed manager Di.
In this earlier play, the language is more naturalistic, the approach more self-consciously political, and the poetry confined to a haunting final moment, in which Valery contemplates a future without her gift. Yet still, the troubling power of Churchill’s imagination is there; in the idea itself, in its disturbing collision between the ordinary and the strange, and in the dialogue’s sudden dizzying plunges into the heart of matter and existence, beautifully handled by Kathryn Howden as Valery, a woman as strange as she is ordinary, and as vulnerable as she is strong.
At the King’s in Glasgow, meanwhile – and in Edinburgh next week – there’s another example of English playwriting at its inventive best, although one that could hardly be more different in mood. First seen in 1982, Michael Frayn’s Noises Off is simply the most ingenious piece of playwriting craftmanship ever attempted on the British stage, a comedy that takes the already feverishly complex art-form of farce – all “sardines and doors”, in this case – and turns it inside-out and back to front, showing us both the onstage and the backstage mayhem that results when an ill-assorted company of traditional English theatre folk – all raging egos and unfortunate sexual entanglements – take to the road in a dreadful farce called Nothing On.
As time wears on, Noises Off begins to show its age a little. The type of theatre satirised here was old-fashioned when Frayn wrote the play a generation ago, and in 2013 even the backstage chaos that counterpoints it has a slightly dated look; these days, Neil Pearson’s Oxbridge Lothario of a director would be risking charges of sexual harassment.
Yet in the end, there’s no resisting the sheer comic and technical genius of Frayn’s fantastic dramatic construction. And although Lindsay Posner’s Old Vic production is not the funniest I’ve seen – some of the physical comedy seems slightly laboured, and the emotional pain of the characters a little too poignant to be laughable – it roars through the play with terrific energy. And there’s an added bonus, for Scottish audiences, of a delightful central performance from Maureen Beattie as leading lady Dotty Otley who – with her own savings invested in the tour, and the key role of the housekeeper Mrs. Clackett in her increasingly frazzled hands – has every reason for wanting to keep the show on the road, from Worksop to Stockton-on-Tees, and beyond.
• Far Away and Seagulls is at the Citizens’ Theatre until 8 June. Noises Off is the King’s Theatre, Glasgow until Saturday, and at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 4-8 June.