This Caryl Churchill double bill marked the first performances of both Far Away and Seagulls to a Scottish audience. And while there seemed no discernible stamp of what one might call Scottishness on these plays which chart largely universal themes, the atmosphere produced by the night’s half-empty stalls and closed upper circle levels promoted a sense of our being cast far away from home, resonating with the dystopian themes which bind these two plays together.
The set for Far Away is an ambitious one. Large corrugated iron sheets separated the stage into sections: trailer boxes containing kitchens were lifted by gigantic cranes, giving a sense of jigsaw pieces slowly being slid into place. The effect was alienating just as the writing is choppy, the disjointed rhythm of the text hard to follow as naturalistic scenes broke into the surreal. The constant tinkering with the space between scenes became distracting, ultimately putting a further layer of remove between Churchill’s work and the audience rather than a clarifying what is an already dense and difficult play.
At other times, however, Neil Haynes’ design was able to lend sharp contrast between the scenes. Bright colours punctuate the grim grey of the iron, creating a playful duality of atmosphere. The cast, all clad in blood-spattered boiler suits, create hats which were then paraded to upbeat music, a beautiful dialogue between the functionality of the industrial setting (an unimaginative stab at dystopia) and the frivolous nature of art provoke an intriguing parallel, which hat maker Joan speaks aloud as she comments upon the symbiotic relationship of beauty and disposability.
Far Away is a challenging play to pull off, its dark humour could be easily lost in theatrical pretentiousness and the alienation at its heart relies upon the simple human subtexts being read as clearly aligning a core human fragility with the dystopian unknown. The production tends to at times swamp with metaphor a play already dense with atmosphere and disconcerting allusions. And while the audience trace Churchill’s graceful leaps between conflicts both external and internal, what surrounds it in the set comes close to feeling clumsy and overblown; the political references spoken often demonstrate in powerful and minimalistic language the points at which the heavy set fails.
Seagulls offered a more stripped down approach, letting the play and characters speak for themselves, despite the essence of what they’re saying not being wholly clear. The back drop of clouds or ‘unexpected skies’ seems a poignant stab at attempting to make the play say whatever you want, a theatrical Rorschach test mirroring experience.
As house wife-turned-celebrity Valery nervously gears herself up for a performance to illustrate her supernatural talent of ‘moving things’ she meets American fan Cliff who causes her to doubt herself which jeopardises her ability to perform. Her ongoing monologue with herself concerning belief and ability offers a poignant discussion regarding stories we must tell ourselves to keep going, and consequentially the narratives we forge around success, meaning and understanding the human condition. Valery’s concerns about being a ‘nobody’ no doubt ring true to some degree for each audience member, but as Cliff notes her inability to ‘move things’ is as extraordinary as her ability to move them, showing the impossibility of sustaining social status and teaching us to see as a triumph what we have as opposed to what we want. From this comes the play’s revelation: as Valery fears for the ending of her supernatural talent, she notices the extent to which things move around her, the extent to which people are able to move themselves – both literally and emotionally, and the fragile beauty of this – that within us we all have the ability to fix ourselves and more importantly to feel, and feel freely, even if this is often a struggle to realise.