The latest staging of two short Caryl Churchill plays is an example of the artform at its best, offering moments of exquisite theatre. By Alison Croggon.

Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone and What If If Only

Four performers sit in chairs on stage and amongst long grass.
Helen Morse, Deidre Rubenstein, Kate Hood and Debra Lawrance in Escaped Alone.
Credit: Pia Johnson

Putting on a play is perhaps the most difficult of arts. It begins with the writing – or, to be more precise, with language created specifically to be spoken on a stage by actors. Through successive layers of design, direction and performance, it builds to something that is almost miraculous in its paradoxes: at once fleetingly delicate and hard as titanium, a meld of intellect and feeling created through the deliberations of many minds and forged into a single, mortal experience.

It’s not surprising this process fails so often: there are so many stress points along the way. Perhaps the play is beyond rescue by any amount of bells and whistles. Perhaps, as performances of Shakespeare so often demonstrate, the script is amazing but the production is a mess. Perhaps the set collapses during the performance. And yet sometimes, against all the odds, it works: and your hopeless love affair with this most infuriating and rewarding of art forms begins all over again.

At the Melbourne Theatre Company, Anne-Louise Sarks’ staging of two short plays – Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone (2016) and What If If Only (2021) – shows how it is done. These “late-stage” plays – elliptical, stripped-down, formally audacious works that Churchill began to write in the mid-1990s – are fully imagined into works of theatrical poetry that speak the uneasy terrors of our time.

In a career that spans six decades, Churchill has never not been political. The plays that initially made her famous, such as the post-revolution polemic of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976) or the feminist parable Cloud Nine (1979), employed Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht’s notions of epic theatre, which sought to stimulate its audiences to think critically about the society in which they lived. In recent decades, Churchill’s work – always formally supple – increasingly drew from the likes of Antonin Artaud and Samuel Beckett, turning towards the surreal and absurd.

Much more than the aestheticised withdrawal from political engagement it was sometimes mistaken for, this evolution was Churchill’s response to the changing world around her. It reflects an ongoing struggle with language itself: the understanding that while language can be liberating, its legislative tendency to assume a single truth can equally become a tool for repression. In a time dominated by the catastrophic emptiness of neoliberalism, which continuously appropriates dissent and spits it out as the next consumerist fashion, Churchill’s refusal to be reduced to faux-political pap feels more and more admirable.

Escaped Alone is an exemplar of this later work. It’s clearly inspired by Beckett’s “dramaticule” Come and Go, in which three women of “indeterminable” age, Vi, Flo and Ru, make small talk on a bench and whisper a scandalous secret that the audience never hears. In Churchill’s version, the women – Vi (Debra Lawrance), Sally (Deidre Rubenstein) and Lena (Kate Hood) – are stipulated to be over 70, and their conversation is disrupted by a fourth, Mrs Jarrett (Helen Morse). Here, the quiet bits are said out loud.

Sarks initially was to direct Escaped Alone for Belvoir St Theatre’s 2020 season, also with a cast that included Helen Morse, but the pandemic put paid to that. It’s easy to believe this production benefited from the delay: it’s exceptional theatre in all its aspects. But perhaps its greatest pleasure is watching these four remarkable actors bring this writing to life.

The play consists of eight scenes that take place over a “number of afternoons” in summer, in which the women are sunning themselves in Marg Horwell’s idealised garden. Each scene is punctuated by a blackout in which Mrs Jarrett narrates the histories of several absurd and ghastly apocalyptic futures. In the first, “four hundred thousand tons of rock paid for by senior executives” buries whole villages underground, forcing people to survive by  eating rats and trading mushrooms for urine. In others, property developers create a wind that turns people’s heads inside out, or a famine is caused when food is diverted to television programs, forcing the obese to sell slices of themselves.

These visions are close enough to reality to be terrifying – almost all our futures, after all, have been stolen by senior executives and property developers. And bit by bit, the realities described by Mrs Jarrett begin to seep into the apparently inconsequential conversations between the four women, erupting in tragicomic monologues – Sally’s traumatising fear of cats, Vi’s confession that she killed her husband in the kitchen, Lena’s overwhelming depression. This is reflected in the shifting lighting states – superlatively designed by Paul Jackson – and Jethro Woodward’s evocative sound, which begin as stark contrasts and increasingly become permeable between scenes.

The 20-minute play What If If Only, a parable about grief, follows after interval. Someone (Alison Bell) is mourning their beloved. Their anguish summons the Futures lost with the beloved: firstly “the ghost of a dead future” (Lucy Ansell) with “equality and cake and no bad bits at all”, and then a host of less hopeful Futures, played by 12 other actors. They all must be relinquished for a different Present (played by Steve Mouzakis) in which the beloved is forever dead, in order for a Child Future to emerge. I was almost taken aback by the directness here: it’s not so much a metaphor as a series of instructional steps for living with grief – not only the personal mourning of a beloved, but a wider sorrow for unrealised utopias.

Churchill’s work is remarkable for many reasons, but not the least is the freedom it offers other artists. She’s the polar opposite of a playwright such as Edward Albee, who notoriously liked to control every aspect of a production – as an actor once told The New Yorker, “We are really the servants and he is the master.” Churchill’s texts, perhaps unsurprisingly given her politics, are invitations to collaboration.

What ensues can be breathtaking. The first few minutes of What If If Only – a scene in which not one word is spoken – is among the most exquisite theatre I’ve seen. It’s the creation of the stellar production team – Jackson’s lighting, Horwell’s set design, Woodward’s sound. The curtain rises to show Someone staring out of the back window, which looks over the garden we saw earlier in Escaped Alone, of an abstracted, open-walled suburban house. She is holding a boiled egg that she takes to the kitchen table, peels, salts and eats.

As Someone sits at the table, an essay in lighting – a kind of chronological sculpture – flickers around them: lamps turn on and off, headlights sweep past the house, rooms plunge into darkness and reanimate. We realise we are witnessing months of evenings just like this one. It’s a devastating portrait of loneliness that’s drawn from a single stage direction: “Someone on their own.”

This scene alone is worth the price of admission. It shouldn’t be brave programming to put on one of the greatest playwrights now writing in English at the MTC, but Churchill’s poetic, manifested in Sarks’ scrupulously judged production, brings a radical vitality to the main stage. More,

Escaped Alone and What If If Only play at the Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, until September 9.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 19, 2023 as "Radical vitality".

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