The past can be a great satirical lens for the present, giving theatre-makers a chance to show us that we ain’t as different, now, as we’d like to think. But a play as a piece of writing doesn’t exist in a bubble of time. It’s as enmeshed in history as anything else.
What’s fascinating about this Caryl Churchill revival (by Atlantic Theatre Company) of a play first staged in 1979 is the way it foregrounds both points – on the one hand deliberately, but on the other, not. Watching it is a dissonant experience, as the satirical comedy of the first act, which takes pot-shots at the colonialism of the British Empire, dials back as the play shifts to a presumed ‘now’ that no longer is.
Set, initially, in Victorian-era colonial Africa, director James Macdonald’s production positively revels in the absurd, hypocritical social roles corseting a British family, its servant, a neighbouring widow and a paedophilic adventurer chafingly in place. Men play women, and vice versa, as Chris Perfetti’s sensitive Betty laments her husband’s absence and life as a woman.
Churchill sends up the social and gender norms of the period by wrapping them in a meta-melodramatic excess that also blows up a particularly lurid brand of theatre. It’s a masterclass in having your cake and eating it, writing-wise. We laugh as much at the fevered hand-wringing as the dry lines delivered so cuttingly by Lucy Owen, dolefully good as Betty’s mother, Maud.
It all unfolds with a pantomime buzz, as Betty’s son, Edward (Brooke Bloom), secretly plays with his sister’s rag-doll, while being spied on by the family servant Joshua, who’s rejected his tribe and adopted Christianity. Here, Joshua is played by a white actor, Sean Duggan. It’s not exactly a subtle move, but it fits the tenor of the production. Everyone’s role-playing somehow.
And then, after a couple of affairs, a marriage of convenience and a cliff-hanger never to be pulled back on to safe land, we come back from the interval to find ourselves in London, in 1979. The cross-dressing is still in place (with Clark Thorell shifting from horrible head of the family, Clive, to a pretty terrifying, pig-tailed little girl). But, in spite of more than a century passing, we’re also meeting older versions of some of the same characters as before.
Churchill’s truncating of time beyond any realistic passage of years bears out what she stresses repeatedly in her writing: that the prejudices of then, of the oppressed damagingly tied to the oppressor, of self-hating conformity, are not comfortably distinct from those of now. They’re just transposed, in some cases, into sexuality and more insidious misogyny.
Brooke Bloom is now an elderly Betty, while Chris Perfetti is an adult Edward, openly gay and unhappily trying to play ‘wife’ to Sean Duggan’s roving-eyed Gerry, who’s contemptuous of his cleaving to old, ‘straight’ ways. Edward’s sister, Victoria (just a doll in the first act), is reading feminist literature, a parent, and in a loveless marriage – until she starts a relationship with Lin, another mother she meets in the park.
As Victoria, Edward and Lin move in together and explore new ways to live, and Betty re-discovers masturbation as her own rebellion against the past, the play shifts into awkward sincerity. Its plea for a new paradigm of relationships is well-meaning – and interestingly relevant post-gay marriage – but overly insistent and often clumsy in the presentation. Where Gerry and his late-night hook-ups might once have been challenging, now his characterisation seems outdated, and not in a controlled way.
There’s still fun to be had, and sharpness, but as Churchill wears her colours on her sleeve, they begin to look as period as one of those beige-patterned 70s tents. We’re left with stereotypes that aren’t stable, that have had time to develop and mature since the play debuted; and nothing ages faster than an agenda. It’s a problem that Macdonald doesn’t really resolve, as his production’s struggle to achieve a consistent tone wrestles with more than just some dodgy east London accents.
It’s tricky, writing and staging a piece that expects – no, actively encourages – an audience to laugh at everything, but then to stop, sit up and take it seriously. The latest notion is never the final one. And the passage of time – and with it those cultural shifts, both subtle and significant, that make history out of the present – is as ruthless on theatre as it is on anything else.