It’s almost impossible to believe these companion one-act plays, Heart’s Desire and Blue Kettle, performed together as Blue Heart, are 20 years old. After all, we still live in a world where Constellations or X are considered genre-bending, edgy, off-West End delights. But, of course, Caryl’s been at this since before you were born. Literally.
So it feels right that these plays are revived now, for the first time since they debuted at the Royal Court, in this Orange Tree co-production with Tobacco Factory Theatres. At a time when we flock to plays that are long, short, have no or multiple intervals, where long-form streamed storytelling rules on TV, snappy podcasts fill our commutes and we actively prefer our news in listicle rather than narrative form, we’re finally ready to reconnect with a 20-year-old play. We’ve caught up with Caryl Churchill.
Blue Heart sees angsty parents await the return of their adult daughter from Australia. We see the same scene played over and over again. Each time, minor changes fling the whole thing off in a new direction, from surreal interruptions to emotional eruptions. There’s no doubt Blue Heart is a challenge but, unlike other self-consciously intellectual literary efforts, warmth and humanity pervades Churchill’s work, no matter how weird things get.
The family labours under the impossibility of creating the scene of the perfect homecoming. Any of the alternative scenarios, each packed with drama and tension, could be the foundation of a great play. Churchill’s genius is that she rejects control and chooses all of them instead. The overarching impression is that there is no right way, no whole, no finished product for family life or for art. Meaning is impossible.
Bizarrely – or maybe not – my mind wanders back to an insomnia-induced rewatch of one of Professor Brian Cox’s super-shiny TV programmes which saw him whispering in the desert about the third law of thermodynamics, the universal force of decay. Things fall apart: the scene, the family, language, the body, life, the universe. Here, form really is meaning, or absence of meaning.
But Heart’s Desire still pumps with narrative energy. Things happen, progress, change, bodies circles each other. And the whole thing in shot through with the satisfying contrast between the mundane, domestic kitchen scene and the sci-fi chic tropes embodied in the lighting (Chris Swain) and sound design (Max Pappenheim), which accompany the resets. A clinical blue strip of the light pulsates over the darkened stage, while eerie sounds somehow summon the right sound for this multiverse view.
The cast is super slick. Light footed through the considerable technical challenges; all too humane in the microscopic detail of family life. Amelda Brown’s face in particular is an constantly reworked canvas conveying the attritional agonies of life’s daily.
Oh, and it’s outrageously funny.
Blue Kettle is a more sombre, but no less compelling and confounding affair. Whereas the scene falls apart in Heart, it’s language which goes on the blink in Blue Kettle. Conman Derek has led several woman to believe he’s the son they gave up for adoption. As his web of lies becomes increasingly tangled, random words are replaced with ‘blue’ and ‘kettle’.
As the play reaches an emotional crescendo, even the word itself becomes unstable. Why? Who knows? But the drama of the scene stays intact. While words can’t be trusted to convey their meaning, our understanding of the emotion remains profoundly clear. The audience is never in any doubt what’s happening and what the characters are feeling.
Again, the cast dance across the difficulties of the dialogue and the random word insertions start to feel natural – the empty signifiers of ‘blue’ and kettle’ seem like the right ones. We’re building meaning from something meaningless, filling it up with our expectations; the always already written. We’re writing this play along with Caryl Churchill, just one of us in this collective act of creation.
Director David Mercatali’s confident touch allows the production to embrace the bizarreness and beauty of these plays. And that these experimental pieces are at once so moving and intellectually challenging is almost mind-blowing.
Blue Heart is on until 19th November 2016 at the Orange Tree Theatre. Click here for more details.