Tag Archives: Christopher Shutt

“Far Away” at the Donmar Warehouse

Although it has a running time of only 45 minutes, there’s nothing little about this masterpiece from Caryl Churchill.

Believe it or not, despite the brief duration, Far Away could even be thought of as three plays rather than one. Maybe the scenes, despite shared character names, don’t have to be connected? 

Churchill’s invention provides a trio of dystopian visions, each scary and increasingly bizarre, held in tense suspension with one another. 

First there’s a trip to the proverbial woodshed, then a workshop producing hats for a judicial display. Finally, we see the world at war in a peculiar fashion. This is political turmoil that straddles allegorywith prescient fears in a unique fashion.

Of course, Churchill didn’t invent dystopian dramas, and she uses Orwellian overtones expertly. But it’s easy to see how influential this text from 2000 has already been. The mix of sci-fi with macabre touches means the play hasn’t dated a jot. And this production does the text proud.

Lizzie Clachan’s set combines simplicity with theatrical surprises. The sound design from Christopher Shutt will give you goose bumps without being ostentatious. And director Lyndsey Turner admirably resists the temptation to spin out the stories. The only extravagance is the use of supernumeraries, drawn from the Donmar’s ‘Take The Stage’ programme, who do a great job. But their appearance is brief. There’s a recurring theme here – a respect for Churchill’s marvellous economy.

Far Away at the Donmar Warehouse
Aisling Loftus and Simon Manyonda

Take the characters that we meet, so briefly and in such complex circumstances. Turner’s cast is superb in creating a sense of ordinary individuals no matter how removed from us the situations seem. Jessica Hynes, Aisling Loftus and Simon Manyonda provide just enough glimpses into the everyday lives of the roles they take. While appearing respectively as Harper, Joan and Todd twice, the characters change dramatically, revealing extraordinary skill from the actors and creating incredible tension. That such richness can come from such austerity really shouldn’t be possible! Churchill’s writing is breath taking – every line in Far Away works close to the bone.

Until 4 April 2020

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Escaped Alone” at the Royal Court

Sometimes the theatre seems obsessed with youth: plays about teenagers, hot new stars and valiant efforts to attract ‘new’, i.e. younger, audiences. But here’s a play that takes old age and experience seriously, while highlighting another important debate – about women in the theatre. The 77-year-old Caryl Churchill’s new play is for four older women, a brilliant piece confirming that being radical isn’t about age but about sheer skill and vision.

Escaped Alone is short, under an hour, and director James MacDonald tightly controls the duration. It’s worth paying attention to Christopher Shutt’s audio work here, with sounds and silences in the piece as carefully constructed as the impeccable script.

Despite the brevity, Churchill manages more than most playwrights. This is a buy-one-get-two-free play, mixing genres to startling effect. First a group of friends, chatting in the garden – the conversation observed to perfection and their relationships conveyed with marvellous economy – is funny, wise and topical.

Monologues interrupt, revealing the women’s current fears. These are poems on anxiety, depression and regret, each one capable of moving you to tears. Circling around the theme of loneliness, the show is explicit about the “bitter rage” we all contain.

ESCAPED ALONE by Churchill,    , Writer - Caryl Churchill, Director - James Macdonald, Designer - Miriam Buether, Lighting Peter Mumford, The Royal Court Theatre, 2016, Credit: Johan Persson/
Linda Bassett

And then there are scenes of storytelling. Dystopian tales of earth, wind, fire and water that Churchill has wicked fun with. The outrageous scenarios bring laughs, but the abject isn’t far away. Absurd suggestions, worthy of any conspiracy fantasist, these apocalypses come close to our darkest imaginings.

Linda Bassett takes the lead in these stand-alone scenes, so she excels among an amazing cast. She’s joined by Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson, who each seem incapable of putting a foot wrong, and it’s hard to imagine another ensemble this strong.

The production marks a stellar beginning to the Royal Court’s anniversary year. The venue’s tagline, ‘sixty years young’, feels appropriate for Churchill’s fresh work. Settling into the home of previous career triumphs, Escaped Alone is just as experimental and challenging, bold both structurally and thematically. Forget those angry young men… it’s time for these wise old women.

Until 12 March 2016

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Ditch” at the Old Vic Tunnels

As The London Magazine’s resident theatre mole, your intrepid reviewer went subterranean to visit The Old Vic Tunnels for Beth Steel’s apocalyptic new play Ditch.

Located beneath Waterloo station and approached along a depressing back street, the venue is actually a happy compromise away from the more adventurous site-specific locations that can be something of an ordeal. It still gets cold and it smells a bit but, with comfy seats donated by Banksy and a bar that boasts no fewer than four designers, it is achingly cool and London’s most exciting new theatrical space.

More importantly, the creative team behind Ditch have used the venue well. Installations surround the auditorium. Plant-covered mill wheels are atmospherically lit and a dismembered tree hovers, upside down, over a bright red circle of cloth. It’s great scene setting and appropriate for the dystopian scenario that unfolds.

Although Ditch is set in the countryside and much of the action takes place out of doors, the survivor’s predicament is perfectly reflected by the large design team headed by Takis. Superb lighting and sound by Matt Prentice and Christopher Shutt add to constructing this frightening world. Here, while ‘security’ forces live in isolation with their housekeepers and search out ‘illegals’, there are some captivating moments – the sighting of a stag in the mist or the creation of a sunset that subtly suggests an atomic cloud.

There’s some superb acting as well. Sam Hazeldine plays the foul-mouthed Turner, dedicated to his soldier’s life with edgy brutality. Danny Webb is his commander, Burns, and convinces as a thoughtful, broken man who can remember what civilisation used to be like. Fighting off memories of the past as a strategy to survive is Dearbhla Molloy’s formidable Mrs Peel. This is a wonderful performance, as she looks after the men and herself with humorous, steely determination. Her other charge is the young Megan (Matti Houghton) who gives a touching portrayal full of small rebellions and a quest for love with spirited new recruit James (Gethin Anthony).

But what of the play itself? Steel has set out a standard science-fiction scenario with the odd little tactic of leaving out all the details. We are never told what has happened to the world and given next to no back-story for the characters. Avoiding specifics deprives us of questioning events or degenerating into adolescent paranoia. I suspect the idea is to focus instead on the characters’ reactions and some abstract ideas about the environment. This isn’t a trade off worth paying. Perversely, Steel ignores her own lesson that people can live in the moment and snatch joy in the worst of times to persist in a vision of the future both bleak and vague.

Until 26 June 2010

www.theoldvictheatre.com

Photo by William Knight

Written 21 May 2010 for The London Magazine