Carol Churchill dips into dystopian territory with this short, chilling and atmospheric revival of Far Away.
This review won’t be very long because Far Away was one of the shortest plays I have seen in the West End. Novel in its way, it has 3 scenes, one act, lasts precisely 60 minutes, and you’re in the queue at Five Guys. So is short merciful? Well, in this instance, it is, yes. Far Away is a set of circumstances thrust into a dystopian future. I can’t be any more specific than that because there are no more specifics.
Now I would say that sci-fi is not Caryl Churchill’s natural home, given that her place among the greats of British Playwriting came about through hits like Cloud Nine, Top Girls and Serious Money. I saw the original production of Serious Money at the Royal Court Theatre (her enduring second home) with Gary Oldman, Alfred Molina and Leslie Manville – and how we laughed at the unbridled greed of a newly deregulated city, captured so brilliantly by Churchill’s clipped and witty dialogue. But fools like us learned nothing from the play and we immediately went out and bought shares in an Australian diamond mine (yes we did) who were about to ‘dig up a diamond as big as a fist.’ The diamond never materialised, the shares tanked and we all felt duped by a city that only serves to take care of its own. But back in 1987, when Serious Money was first produced, we felt safe tucked up in our beds knowing that the excesses of capitalism would never change us. We would remain a caring, sharing, democratic society at heart. Well, how wrong we were. And Caryl Churchill is the one playwright who can safely say, I told you so, which proves she is a soothsayer of sorts.
But is her portrayal of a dystopian future in Far Away as impactful? It certainly tries, but it is not so fine a piece. It does have all the hallmarks of great Churchillian writing and there is some impressive staging.
The play opens with a little girl, Joan, in a nightgown of the old-fashioned cotton variety, feeling her way along a huge, metallic box that almost flinches as she touches it. It’s all very 2001 with powerful, suspenseful music and the box looks like a symbolic obelisk of significance. So we know we’re in a place that is not of this world, but a world where thoughts are unreliable and actions are strange.
The box rises up to reveal the girl’s Aunt, Harper, pinning a lining to a quilt that has an idyllic pastoral scene embroidered on the front. It is the middle of the night and everything is a little topsy-turvy.
We learn that Joan is staying with her Aunt and Uncle and she has done some nocturnal exploring of the garden and seen some things. Terrible things. Masterly writing from Churchill drip feeds these revelations slowly so that Aunt Harper’s accompanying denials about what is really going on can be perpetuated – until they can’t. As she sews, Harper underpins a tapestry of deceits until her niece’s questions become too pertinent:
“Why was Uncle hitting them?” asks Joan about the people in the garden shed.
“Well, the ones he was hitting were traitors,” explains Harper.
“Why was there blood on the children?”
“You have seen something that is secret. You are part of the movement now.”
It is shocking to hear a young girl reveal such things. And it is sad that she had to witness them. Churchill knows the impact of a theatrical moment very well. And she withholds so much, it’s tantalising. We don’t know anything about the young girl’s past, but she wants to belong in her new environment and accepts that there is torture going on in the garden shed. All she wants to do is please her Aunt and Uncle and help them out if she can. You get the impression that Joan is at a dead end of belonging herself and this is all the family that she has.
Today, there is so much sign posting in drama, that it feels almost dated to be left with so many gaps as to what is actually happening. But in Far Away, there are just too many gaps for comfort. A cohesive story is oddly absent.
The next scene sees Joan all grown up and working in a hat factory. It’s a Kafkaesque kind of a place with a dissatisfied co-worker and they are making hats for a procession. But the procession is not part of some colourful cultural festival, but a parade of tortured souls; men, women, teenagers and children, who could be any one of us with a dissenting voice and who have been tortured at the hands of a barbarous regime. The hats are worn by the persecuted presumably to distract any onlookers from the blood and the wounds that have been inflicted.
The last scene is even more bizarre and incoherent. Aunt Harper has lost her reason and sees nature as taking political sides. Crocodiles are guilty all the way and the grown up Joan wonders if the river she had to cross in her escape from her tormentors is out to get her as well. Nature is turning against them. In that, Churchill was not so prophetic. We have in fact turned our backs on nature of late and have indeed very nearly destroyed it to the point where it has no strength to take sides either way.
There are more than good performances by Sophia Ally as the young Joan, Jessica Hynes as Harper and Aisling Loftus as the grown up Joan. They all try admirably to fit in to the mystery that is Far Away and add quality to the shortest of productions.
But as I came away from the Donmar, I imagined the director of the Royal Court saying to Churchill back in 2000 (when it was first produced): Look Caryl, we’ve got a lunchtime slot free – no pressure – spread your wings – write something about the 21st Century. What she turned in is not quite the prophecy one would expect from a theatrical tour de force.
Caryl Churchill’s Far Away is showing at the Donmar Warehouse until 4 April. Click here for more information and to book tickets.
Feature Image & all accompany images of Far Away by Johan Persson and courtesy of the Donmar Warehouse