‘We are always already entangled in webs of narratives. They are integral to the world that precedes us, and they make it possible for us to develop into subjects who are capable of narrating their experiences, sharing them with others, and telling their own versions of the stories they have inherited. Each cultural and historical world functions as a space of possibilities that encourages certain modes of experience, thought, and action, and discourages or disallows others, and stories play a constitutive role in establishing the limits of these worlds – both enabling experience and delimiting it. […] narrative practices can be oppressive, empowering, or both.’ Hanna Meretoja, The Ethics of Storytelling: Narrative Hermeneutics, History and the Possible
The Royal Court website describes Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. as ‘Four stories by Caryl Churchill’. The characters inhabit crepuscular, fairy tale worlds, stalked by abuse and violence. There are shades of Angela Carter and the Brothers Grimm in Glass and Bluebeard’s Friends, dense references to the bloodshed of ancient Greek tragedy in Kill, and sly, half-forgotten mentions of Shakespeare’s murders in Imp. As a quartet, the four plays weave an intricate web of allusions, exploring the human need to process or even justify violence by narrating it, and the ethical responsibility of the writer to consider the narratives they are putting into the world. And, because it’s Caryl Churchill, the plays are a lot harder to pin down than that description might suggest.
In Kill, Tom Mothersdale is enthroned as a god on a cotton wool cloud, while a child (Caelan Edie) sits cross-legged on the floor, scribbling furiously over a drawing. ‘Kill’, he mutters, ‘I hate him’, as he scribbles so hard that he rips through the paper. Mothersdale’s god is expansive and sardonic, rattling through the various mythic atrocities that humans have committed because they thought they wanted the gods wanted them to do it – or said they thought the gods wanted them to do it. He disclaims responsibility with a wave of his hands, declaring, ‘we don’t exist, people made us up’, from his perch on the cloud. These stories part of cultural psyche. A son kills his father. A general sacrifices his daughter. A young woman kills herself. The child’s face is set into a scowl, already hardened. The brutality seems inevitable. The god grows desperate, imploring in a rush, ‘and we say no don’t do that it’s enough we don’t like it now don’t do it we say stop please stop’. How do we make it stop?
Glass, which opens the evening, is the most oblique of the four plays, dreamily recounting the story of a girl made of glass, transparent and breakable. Kwabena Ansah, Louisa Harland, Patrick McNamee, and Rebekah Murrell are perched precariously on a white shelf; they are objects on a mantlepiece – ‘a girl made of glass, a clock, a red plastic dog, a vase’, and they are teenagers. Spiky, sparse lines are splintered into short scenes by the sound of a distorted clock chime or perhaps the sound of a wet finger running around the rim of a glass, in Christopher Shutt’s sound design. The bodies of the actors are refracted by the vivid, startling images they describe. Rebekah Murrell has an eerie presence as the glass girl, particularly in her concluding monologue. When I watched it, I found Glass frustratingly oblique and the conceit overstretched, but the writing rewards meditative, returning attention. If we tell girls that they are fragile, are they more likely to break?
Bluebeard’s Friends is a darkly comic short play, in which a group of friends try to process the shock of finding out that their friend turned out to be a mass murderer of his wives. ‘Should we have noticed?’ muses one character. After working through performative condemnation – ‘Horrified to learn my friend Bluebeard is a serial killer’, some of the friends discover sympathy for Bluebeard and then seek to monetise their connection. James Macdonald sets the play at a series of dinner parties; the red wine the friends drink looks like blood. Miriam Buether’s set – bloodied dresses that drop from the ceiling and hang like bodies – perfectly captures the comic-macabre tone of the piece. The play verges a little too far into sketch at times for the subject matter but is sustained by the deadpan performances of Deborah Findlay, Toby Jones, Sarah Niles, Sule Rimi.
Imp is the longest of the four plays, taking up the entire second half. In some ways, it is the most theatrically straightforward, but it is also the most rich and suggestive due to its extended length. Dot (Deborah Findlay) and Jimmy (Toby Jones), two cousins in a co-dependent relationship, invite their sort of niece Niamh (Louisa Harland) into their home. She meets Rob (Tom Mothersdale), a homeless man who Dot sometimes gives a cup of tea to but is not allowed to stay, and they start a relationship. Deborah Findlay’s performance as Dot is astounding, capturing her eccentricity and vulnerability, as well as the suppressed violence that she releases on Jimmy in a tirade of feeling. Dot keeps a malevolent imp in a bottle, which she believes can grant wishes but only malevolent ones. None of the characters are quite sure they believe in it – but are also not sure that they don’t believe in it. The play seems to suggest the power of the things we keep bottled up (desire, violence, a craving for companionship), but also expresses a note of hope in the possibility for relationships even in unlikely circumstances.
Miriam Buether’s stage design – red curtains and lightbulbs around the stage – and James Macdonald’s direction add welcome notes of the theatrical to the production. In two interludes between plays in the first half, a juggler and an acrobat perform. They do not return for the second half, which does create a bit of an imbalance but does stress the difference in theatrical idiom between the almost naturalistic Imp and the rest of the plays. There is a risk that an evening of short plays frustrates; the form rewards bold concepts that cannot necessarily be sustained over a longer work. However, Glass, Kill and Bluebeard’s Friends are bright shards of ideas, allowing space for reflection. Imp could stand alone. The combination of the four forms a kaleidoscopic meditation on the power of stories.
Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. is on at the Royal Court till 12th October. More info here.