Features Published 29 February 2020

The costly stage magic of Caryl Churchill

With both ‘Far Away’ and ‘A Number’ on in London, now’s your moment to develop a Caryl Churchill obsession. Alice Saville writes on two plays that are designed to mesmerise.

Alice Saville

‘A Number’ at Bridge Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

“Pay pay pay with pay with card…” The disembodied, friendly voices of the supermarket self-checkout I visit after seeing Caryl Churchill’s A Number are echoing in chorus, each slightly different, each gaining its own resonance from its proximity to my eardrums, from the microscopic differences in the way it’s been calibrated. Identical, but not the same.

Churchill wrote A Number in 2002, a few years after Dolly the sheep was born, some years before Barbra Streisand paid $50,000 to clone her dead dog, long before an Argentinian polo team all rode cloned copies of the same immaculately-formed horse. Cloning is more everyday and less terrifying now, somehow, now it’s limited to the realms of luxury replications of non-human animals – a distraction from the more urgent scientific business of stopping the planet from heating up to implosion point. We’ve all slipped a little further into the future.

Polly Findlay responds to this shifted context not by ramping up the dystopian, multiplying horror of A Number, but by giving it the subdued aesthetic of a period piece. It’s running at the same time as Lyndsey Turner’s Far Away at the Donmar, also set in a non-specific past, and shortly after the National Theatre’s glossily retro Top Girls. It feels like the current orthodoxy when it comes to staging Churchill’s work is all about high-budget reverence; deep sumptuous blackouts between scenes of perfect 20th century naturalism. Caryl Churchill is having a moment and judging by the aesthetics, that moment is somewhere around 1983.

I’m being glib. Lizzie Clachan’s design for A Number makes all kinds of sense; it’s the colours of a used teabag, the dreary tones and textures that suggest a kind of universalised ’80s domesticity, all ‘good taste’ and horrible ugliness. It’s a choice – instead of terrifying you with a possible future, it’s calling out to its audience’s recessed family memories, layering them over with horrendous possibilities.

A Number is terrifying because it evokes the parent’s worst nightmare; that you can fuck up, terribly and irrevocably, and even if you seem to have made a fresh start your mistakes will still reemerge to destroy everything you’ve built. Roger Allam plays Salter, a father with a kind of deeply embedded reasonableness, slightly shrunken, just barely making visible the stain of the deceptions and guilt he’s living with, like soured milk spilt on a sleeve’s cuff.

This play is constructed as a series of confrontations between Salter and three different iterations of sons, all played by Colin Morgan. First, Bernard discovers his own non-uniqueness, and is rattled, despite his father’s efforts to comfort him. Then the scene shifts to show another Bernard, slightly older, but built from the same genetic material. He already knows too much; he treads over his own father’s domestic misdemeanours, dredging them out of the darkness. An ignored cry in the night become a criminal act, this tiny child turned all-remembering witness.

Salter’s worst bits of parenting unfolded in a span of two years; a bad run to him, but for his first son that’s the defining part of his childhood, the bit that set him on path. So Salter tried again, cloned him. This is parenting as science experiment, which can be repeated with the same components and somehow get horrifyingly different results.

The idea of being hunted down by your more messed-up doppelganger, your there-but-for-the-grace-of-god other self, is a classically horrifying one. It could be some kind of futuristic thriller, icy and tense – with an extra twist to dig the knife in. But that’s not quite the emotion Churchill is interested in exploring here. Instead, she lays on a final act that’s so beautifully, obnoxiously benign, a carpet of yellow begonias planted over a shallow grave.

Morgan brings out a Northern Irish accent (his role is an almost distractingly perfect showcase for constrasting characterisations) to play this third son, who’s secure in his life, sane, untouched by dysfunction. He knows that he shares 99% of his DNA with a chimpanzee, so is untroubled by the prospect of having unknown brothers. Salter’s need to provoke him into expressing horror shows the depth of the betrayal that’s happened here; somehow, the wound looks deeper when the victim can’t feel it.

A Number made me think a little of Top Girls for its central adult-child relationships, for its unsparing look at how hungry parental ambition can lead to unthinking cruelty. Uncomplicated, trusting Angie can’t fit into her mother Marlene’s money-driven corporate world. At least two lives are destroyed by Salter’s need to get parenting right, as facilitated by a shadowy corporation. And Far Away, in Lyndsey Turner’s revival at Donmar Warehouse, begins with a little girl gradually revealing the horrors that she’s seen in the night, in a home that should be safe for her. She wears a white linen nightdress, like a good little child of the ’80s, discussing the screams and bloodied bodies she’s seen with her aunt, who’s working on the kind of optimistic landscape-patterned patchwork blanket that now sit, a little ragged, in charity shop bins. This is another forward-looking play staged as a period piece, nostalgia adding a tug of emotion to the darkness.

‘Far Away’ at Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Johan Persson

But where nostalgia makes A Number hit harder, somehow, it feels like the shininess of Far Away situates it somewhere a little less emotionally accessible; that little girl in the white dress becomes the universalised symbol of horror movies and heart-tugging WWI propaganda. I didn’t feel it in my bones in the same way as I felt A Number in my bones – but maybe that’s because so much of this play is about the denial and deferral of feeling emotion about terrible things.

What stuck with me about Far Away is the hypocrisy; its picture of the horrendous fallibility of human integrity. In the second act, the little girl vanishes and we’re transported to an old-fashioned millinery workshop, where two makers of fancy hats gripe about employment rights and the cutting of corners, just nodding ever so slightly to the horrors of the dystopian world outside. They’re earnest about their work’s purpose even when it couldn’t be more futile, couldn’t be built on crueller foundations. In the blackouts between scenes, Clachan works her magic: the hats they’re working on miraculously sprout netting protuberances, feathers, even a miniature picnic basket with an immaculate tiny baguette. It must be a weird scene to design; to create ridiculously beautiful hats, for a scene that makes that task not only ludicrous but morally suspect.

‘Far Away’ at Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Johan Persson

Theatremakers love to do the ‘gotcha’ moment of: why are we wasting time and money on making art when the world’s so terrible? But I’ve never seen it done as tenderly as it is in Far Away. Churchill subtly scrapes away at the selectiveness of the stories we tell to give our world value, to make it feel safe and cosy. In the world of Far Away, only a child can see the truth – and even she is easily gulled by adults, convinced into ‘helping’ with an evil cause, into believing another child is a traitor.

Far Away makes artifice morally suspect, but it also makes it beautiful. The artisanal virtuosity of the hatmaking scene gives way to the linguistic virtuosity of the third act. Churchill takes her critique of human obtuseness even further by painting a world where everything has picked a side; a cavalcade of professions, species, inanimate objects, abstract concepts. I’m not going to say that Churchill predicted cancel culture because – cringe – but also, there’s something very uncomfortably current feeling about this long political discussion; the way that friendship, when one person sides with the deer and another doesn’t, is impossible.

Far Away switches from rural home, to hat factory, to home again. A Number moves between three domestic locations, connected only by one man’s genetic material. There are threads connecting these scenes but they’re so slender. It’s an exercise in stretching out the three-act structure to just before breaking point, so that the parts snap sharply, bruisingly back together. Most three act plays are set in a single location; a dining room, a living room, a dacha. Churchill often sets her successive scenes miles or worlds apart, offering designers a challenge which they can respond to; either by the onerous task of creating a succession of complete naturalistic worlds, or by opting for rough abstraction.

Clachan opts for the former. A Number moves between mundane, uncannily similar living spaces; Clachan’s set manages to be unshowy and massively ambitious at the same time, whisking naturalistic room after room into our vision in blackouts. I found myself squinting, watching for the tiny glow-in-the-dark dots that helped you spot each set piece as it vanished. This design created a distinctness between each scene, perhaps one that muted the dizzying multiplications of this cloning story.

Still, the elaborate stage magic that Churchill’s plays get staged with makes for transcendent moments. Clachan’s hat parade at the climax of Far Away is bruisingly powerful; it becomes a massed vertical grid of prisoners, all turning this way and in a human Connect4 of mute humiliation. It’s pageantry made hideous. It made me think of the Missoni display at Fashion and Textile Museum, which ranked an emotionless army of fabric-draped mannequins on a slope, only this is fashion with its dystopian horror put back in, with the invisible pain of environmental destruction, forced labour, and economic exploitation sewn back into every arched seam.

As an installation it would be all kinds of on-the-nose; as a visual flash, it’s dazzlingly impactful.

Sometimes I think about a tweet from The White Pube; one about how they’d like theatre more if it was like the hallucinogenic swirl of a ’30s Busby Berkeley dance routine, an overload of bodies and images, not people standing around talking.

The West End has clung on to the impossible body standards of ’30s Hollywood but has almost entirely dropped the surrealism. If that art-influenced wildness hangs on in theatre it’s in Caryl Churchill. She loves people standing around talking, and she also loves a parade; a visual statement; a collection of bodies, there to be looked at.

Top Girls at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson.

Top Girls at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson.

Top Girls is a similar excuse to just look. Its opening scene famously references Judy Chicago’s 1979 art installation The Dinner Party, and in the National Theatre’s production, set designer Ian MacNeill and costume designer Merle Hensel created a space of visual richness,  a clash of linen tableclothed elegance and historical kitsch and yawning blackness around this impossible moment, suspended in space.

I like that Churchill’s able to take risks that other playwrights aren’t really allowed to, can’t afford to; these are expensive moments, even facilitated by the work of volunteers (Far Away‘s hat parade is magicked up by the talented students on London College of Fashion’s millinery course). But they’re also moments of magic that act as a kind of bolstering for an experimentation that audiences might otherwise baulk at: it’s like the theatre industry that could have so easily confined her plays to studio theatres is saying – trust us, this is good. Maybe the audience needs something familiar to hold onto.

The first Churchill play I saw is still my favourite; The Skriker, staged semi-immersively at Royal Exchange Manchester. Here, Clachan’s design made hidden spaces light up without warning to reveal artefacts (a perfect doll’s house) that would disappear just as fast – that blackout magic again. Banquets where fairy folk ate clusters of bleeding limbs, in half-darkness, like an Alexander McQueen catwalk show.

‘The Skriker’ at Royal Exchange Manchester

In The Skriker, beauty is faerie magic; the Skriker is a dark force who lures the unwary into her richly beautiful world. Critiques of capitalism pattern through Churchill’s work, whether they’re doused in myth or spelled out in ’80s reality (Top GirlsSerious Money).

Maybe you could even see the short length (each is under an hour) of A Number or Far Away as a riposte to a world that’s obsessed with the relationship between time and money. And maybe the lavish design and high-profile casting choices these plays are staged with is a way of tipping that bargain in another direction. It’s a reach. But in Caryl Churchill plays, the settings aren’t neutral; they’re emotional landscapes, soaked in with fear and politics and memories. And sometimes, too much polish can drain them of their magic.

A Number is on at Bridge Theatre until 14th March; more info and tickets here. Far Away is on at Donmar Warehouse until 4th April; more info and tickets here

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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