Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, London ****
Runs: 2hr 20 mins incl an interval
TICKETS 020 7565 -5000
In person: Mon–Sat, 10am-start of perf or 6pm if no show
Review: of perf seen Sept 26, 2019:
Remarkable. At 81, Caryl Churchill is still producing new plays as daring in form and treatment as any. She’s now brought not one but four new plays to the Royal Court, in many ways her alma mater where so many of her plays have seen the first light of day. This time, Churchill seems to be taking her cue, apart from the horrors of contemporary life, from the classics – Greek myths, Shakespeare, and Perrault’s Bluebeard myth all figure largely or in passing – although James Macdonald’s production and Miriam Buether’s music hall setting and interlude jugglers and acrobats, seem to want to connect us with lighter forms of theatrical presentation.
In Kill, the litany of bloody revenge killing starting with matricide, continuing through the House of Atreus’s bloody internecine battles, the Trojan wars and any number of relatives chopped up and served as delicacies for supper, is related by Tom Mothersdale’s all-seeing god as a cool modern man sitting on a cloud.
A commentary no less on humankind’s – and particularly in Greek drama – constant attempt to consign responsibility to some external omnipotent power, Churchill allows her `god’ to initially adopt an ironic, world-weary tone: `we don’t like it’.
But by the end, there is no mistaking his desperate plea to end the bloodshed.
Violence and killing occur in pretty well all four of these Churchillian `debates’.
In the first piece, Glass, four young people, sitting above a ledge representing an amalgam of human and abstract objects – a clock, a rubber doll and crucially a glass doll – becomes a metaphor for human fragility. Humans like inanimate objects can break all too easily.
There are some lovely moments of surreal humour – as always with Churchill – but its message is only partly accessible in this staging because of lack of volume from some of the young performers although there are some delicately comic moments.
More substantial in tone is Churchill’s modern `take’ on Bluebeard, now described in modern parlance as a serial killer whose death is discussed by his `friends’ – Deborah Findlay, Toby Jones, Sarah Niles and Sule Rimi – as if at a convivial dinner party while in a dramatic visual coup, designer Nicky Gillibrand’s six blood stained dresses of Bluebeard’s murdered wives steadily rise at the back of the stage.
Again, the gruesome is mixed with the absurd and topical to great comic affect especially in imagining how the blood-stained frocks and Bluebeard’s castle would these days be freshly marketed for commercial gain.
And an overtly feminist point is made in Findlay’s cutting up books where women have been badly treated by men. `You won’t have many left’, says her friend. `So I’ll have decluttered,’ declares Findlay using the fashionable jargon, and furiously destroying more pages.
It’s this ability to pinpoint common usage in a bitterly fresh context that marks Churchill out as so unique. That plus her futuristic visions set in the commonplace that both appal and entertain.
For example, the friends are discussing Bluebeard’s funeral. One says, somewhat fatuously: `He was kind. He was clever. He was funny. We all loved him…’. Another says, `I always knew there was something wrong with him.’ `No you didn’t’, says a third. `But we do now. And it wipes the rest out.’
Then Toby Jones pops up with – as you might indeed say – `I knew him since we were ten’. To which the only obvious and very wonderful response is, `And?’
With lines so crisp you need actors with a punctilious sense of deflating comic timing.
Toby Jones and Deborah Findlay do not disappoint, especially so when it comes to the final, hour-long Imp – another study in Mike Leigh/Harold Pinter type inconsequentiality or life in the suburbs.
All too easy to take off the mundanity of life but uneasily, I felt, for once Churchill had misjudged her timing on what amounts to a strange detour and over-extended riff on belief, fear and the violence that can lie just beneath the surface of `ordinary’ lives.
Findlay this time plays Dot, a retired nurse, Jones her live-in, jogging-fanatic cousin, Jimmy, with visitors comprising Louisa Harland’s Niamh, a young Irish niece and Tom Mothersdale’s homeless Rob.
There is something chilling about the way Findlay rattles off remarks, in deadpan voice, about her temper and doing harm to patients when she was a nurse, as if Churchill is making the point that evil resides in seemingly the most placid heart. She fears her temper breaking out again as Niamh fears suddenly becoming `a Moslem’ simply by saying the words.
But it is Findlay’s imp – a being who lives in a wine bottle – who appears to exert the greatest hold on her. There are echoes here of Hilary Mantel’s novel, Beyond Black, about a medieval, malevolent spirit guide.
At one point, Jimmy having apparently let `imp’ out of the bottle – although all agree there is nothing really there – Findlay’s Dot admits the imp, as such, was `company’. `I’ll have to get used to living without it. I’ve no idea how to do that.’
The living lie, or the beliefs by which we live, the preconceptions we hold which sustain our sense of ourselves – all kinds of ideas and concepts are caught up in that short exchange.
Imp as an hour-long piece, with its several short scenes, is dramatically a stretch too far.
But the whole evening, with its inter-act female juggler (Frederike Gerstner) and acrobat (Tamzen Moulding) is a calculated shake-up that those new to Churchillian ways will find rivetingly fresh and startling.
81 years young and still going strong!
Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp.
World premiere of four new plays by Caryl Churchill
Kwabena Ansah, Louisa Harland, Patrick McNamee, Rebekah Murrell
People: Caelan Edie/Leo Rait
Deborah Findlay, Toby Jones, Sarah Niles, Sule Rimi
Dot: Deborah Findlay
Niamh: Louisa Harland
Jimmy: Toby Jones
Rob: Tom Mothersdale
Director: James Macdonald
Set Designer: Hildegard Buether
Costume Designer: Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting Designer: Jack Knowles
Sound Designer: Christopher Shutt
Action Directors: Rc-Annie Ltd
Assistant Director: Grace Gummer
Casting Director: Amy Ball
Costume Supervisor: Lucy Walshaw
Chaperone: Debbie Dawes
First perf of Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. at Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, London, Sept 18, 2019. Runs to Oct 12, 2019
Review published on this site, Sept 27, 2019