Donmar Warehouse – until 4 April 2019
By now, Caryl Churchill has become synonymous with startling experimentation. She’s like that other titan of 20th century British theatre, ‘Pinter’. You only have to say the name to conjure up the likely scenario. Except that Churchill, with every step she takes, starts afresh.
Far Away, I wrote when it first appeared 20 years ago at the Royal Court Upstairs, directed by Stephen Daldry “makes everything else seem flaccid by comparison”.
Churchill took an act of millinery – creating hats – and turned it into a hugely disturbing, unsettling metaphor of how beauty can turn to ashes. Literally. For these hats were being prepared for incineration, along with their wearers.
This we only come to realise by stealth. But in a mere 40 minutes, Churchill takes us from arcadian reassurance – a woman sits with a young child embroidering a quilt in a rural retreat – to a world turned upside down, where Nature itself has turned on humans and strange alliances are waged.
The child – surely no accident in Churchill’s book, a symbol herself of innocence falling by chance on horror – has been woken by a scream. She has climbed outside her bedroom window and seen things she can’t understand.
In a few sentences, the conversation that ensues between aunt and child reflects a whole world of parenting – how adults lie to children, how secrets are hidden. When the truth comes out, in a 10/12 minutes exchange Churchill has encapsulated the vital role of questioning, even from the mouths of babes.
Lyndsey Turner’s revival of this seminal introduction to our planet’s meltdown gives us initially a blossom strewn box. But lift that box and within emerges first the comfortable farmhouse, giving way in a coup de théâtre, to row upon row of haggard prisoners wearing hats that we have seen being created.
Again, in the dialogue between the hat creators – the young girl, Joan, now turned milliner (Aisling Loftus) and Simon Manyonda’s Todd – Churchill lets slip unsettling hints beside perfunctory everyday familiarities.
You can feel something ominous coming – Christopher Shutt’s soundscape, plangent with base chords – hints as much. But it is Churchill’s ability to mix the absurd with the commonplace (like Pinter and indeed the absurdist playwrights of the 1950s) that causes the skin to twitch and one to wriggle so uncomfortably in one’s seat.
Still the end, when it comes, is as startling. A vision of the hunted, Joan, besieged on all sides by the natural world as much as humans. The audience even now, barely recognising the climax. `I didn’t know whose side the river was on.’
Turner’s is a more literal rendering than Stephen Daldry’s Royal Court original.
All the same, Churchill’s vision, two decades ago now seems even more prescient and accurate of planet Earth’s downhill spiral: endless wars and realignments, climate change, imminent environmental catastrophe. All is presaged here in Far Away which as Lyn Gardner points out in her eloquent programme note, is no longer far away.
© Johan Persson, Simon Manyonda (Todd), Aisling Loftus (Joan), escapees from a disintegrating world…
Excellent precision delivery from the four main actors – Jessica Hynes as Harper, the older woman, and a serious faced Sophia Ally as the young Joan, plus a battalion of prisoner `extras’, onstage for merely a minute or two, making their own silent impact.
Maybe only the Caryl Churchill imprint could allow a 40 minute play to be risked in the West End as an evening’s `entertainment’. But the Donmar are prepared to dare it.
Churchill has been warning us now for close on five decades about the state of our world. That is what art can do. If only more paid heed.
by Caryl Churchill
Young Joan: Sophia Ally and Abbiegail Mills
Joan: Aisling Loftus
Harper: Jessica Hynes
Todd: Simon Manyonda
Director: Lyndsey Turner
Designer: Lizzie Clachan
Lighting Designer: Peter Mumford
Sound Designer: Christopher Shutt
Casting Director: Anna Cooper CDG
Costume Supervisor: Sades Robinson
Dialect Coach: Majella Hurley
Resident Assistant Director: Thomas Bailey
Far Away was first performed at the Royal Court Jerwood Upstairs on Nov 24, 2000
First perf of this production of Far Away at the Donmar Warehouse, Feb 6, 2020 and runs to Mar 28, 2020
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