A still life. An apple that looks just like an apple.
A still life. An apple that looks nothing like an apple.
These are the images Caryl Churchill immediately conjures in her brisk, 20-minute play What If If Only. Nursing a glass of wine at the dining table, Someone (James Heffernan) is all alone recounting an anecdote to empty air, but no, to a lost loved one: a man spent years trying to both paint an apple to look exactly like an apple, only to then spend another several years trying to paint an apple to look nothing like an apple. These paintings of apples are like acts of tireless creation, perhaps anguished manifestation. Not still then, not really. Swirling all at once with possibility, yet also singular; if nothing else, indications of human endeavour.
What If If Only is a world of counterfactuals. Heffernan’s Someone breaks down, begging for his beloved to come back to him. He’s instead greeted by the ghost of a dead Future (according to her, the best possible Future), other ghost Futures, the Present (all played by Linda Bassett) and even a Child Future (Jasmine Nyenya). Planes of possibility open up like white light through a prism, technicolour in their potentiality, only to flicker back to reality, to now, then back to another type of possibility, one restricted but still fecund. Churchill uses these visitations to replicate Someone’s stages of grief, and to beautifully crystallize and make profound that experience of loss, of heartbreak, of seeking understanding, of finding a sort of acceptance.
And the timeframe of this Dickensian-like episode almost mimics, in real time, how those thoughts and feelings churn. Director James Macdonald and lighting designer Prema Mehta make visual the manifold Futures by using downstage floodlights to create discrete shadows of Bassett on the upstage walls, which lift and descend at moments of invocation. It’s all minimal, allowing for Churchill’s poetic text to remain at the heart of the piece. Unembellished too is Miriam Buether’s design, a formica and wood dining table with two chairs, one always empty. The punches of colour come from Bassett’s teal smock dress and Nyenya’s sherbert orange t-shirt. It’s not bleak, not quite, but this is a space of loss.
This portrait of grief is still quite beautifully embedded in a material world. We learn about Someone and their loved one in subtle suggestions that create full, complete lives. And Churchill also manages to make staunch socio-political references. Bassett’s Best Future is explicitly not utopia, even if detractors would call it such, but is in fact a direct reference to a more equal, socialist society: ‘I needn’t be perfect but better’. And she bitingly points out how such a desire for a more equal, fair society is a dying wish in this country.
It does feel like a short moment in time, though admittedly one which contains many moments of time, and it is hard to plunge so quickly and then resurface. It’s impressively rich, but that richness requires constant attention to an audience’s ability to take everything in. All performers do a stunning job expressing Churchill’s text, but the emotional journey is tough to get across in less than twenty minutes. And for a play that contains many thresholds, it’s hard not to think about the threshold of the performance itself, and how Macdonald might have equipped an audience for the deep dive. The pre-show music, the pre-show blackout; how can these peri-performative rituals be used to better prepare us for such richness?
Still, Churchill is a master conjurer, and this short meditation on mourning is all about conjuring. It’s a condensed, weighty expression of the human capacity to will, to want, to need, to strive for something – to make an apple both an apple and not at all an apple – to make something happen, make someone happen, and then, most of all, to accept the loss, and the gain, that is the happening
What If If Only is on at Royal Court Theatre until 23rd October 2021. More info and tickets here.