Caryl Churchill rarely does interviews and never discusses the meanings
behind her plays (even her stage directions are scant) - so I would be building
myself up for a fall if I were to try and interpret
Even if you don't need to understand something to enjoy it - you do need more than is offered here.
So, at face value, this play is set around a meeting of four ladies in their twilight years (Churchill says they should all be 'at least seventy'; they're not here), sitting in a garden on a claustrophobic-feeling summer afternoon, sharing tea and conversation about the mundane everyday (plots of TV shows, changes in the high street, family members' talents and failings) - the normal small talk that often (and obviously) hides the more important issues and personal demons that lie beneath one’s surface. Nothing of any worth is ever said whilst in conversation - the secrets and anguishes are shared in "show piece" monologues for each character (on big topics such as murder, phobia and loneliness) - and it is left for the audience to take out what they will, for no help is given to steer you to any real point.
If you don't know Churchill's style of writing already, then it takes some getting used to as it is far from welcoming. She plays with language to mirror real conversations - statements cut off other statements or are left hanging, subjects constantly change and overlap with no referenced background, and monologues become poetic rather than natural. She uses repetition and rhythm to disarm you and shatter reality - with varying levels of success here (towards the end, 25 repetitions of one phrase make up a speech, another - about a phobia of cats - makes you never want to hear the overused word 'cat' again). There are some echoes of Mamet but with a more stylised expression and a point of view that is the antithesis to his arguably misogynistic one. As her career and writing have grown - along with the legions of Court goers who are keen to show their intelligence in understanding her work - her desire for us to be able to empathise and understand the points she is making appears to have lessened; with scripts becoming more insular than inclusive. Where her earlier pieces - such as Cloud Nine and the recently revived Top Girls - blur timelines, history and reality but still carry the audience along with them, here she seems to care less about what, if anything, you will take out from the 50 minutes that play in front of you.
In order for anything in her latter work to land, it needs very careful and clever direction that can help keep the audience on side. James Macdonald has worked with her on some of these pieces so knows this - but the style he has gone with here just adds to the disruptive nature of the writing rather than countering it (as I am used to seeing with her other work). To bring to life the cut off, interrupted lines - as she always scripts fantastically well - there needs to be a deftness in the delivery and direction, so that they feel that they are "unnaturally natural" in conversation. And that is sorely lacking here. Whilst the talents of the four actresses is clear, the rhythm of the writing isn't used to its own advantage and the lines are left just hanging, rather than being interrupted - always with a downward inflexion and a moment's awkward pause before being picked up as obviously expected. If that is purposeful then it does nothing to benefit the writing or the piece as a whole and acts to alienate the audience when it should be drawing us closely in. You can't underestimate the impact that this bad delivery has on a script that hangs on the use of language more than most - and we end up feeling clueless as to what is going on.
There is a danger with such a specific style of talent that the theatre one ends up producing (using the same actors, production team and venue, and appealing to the same audience) starts to become too inward-focusing, only appealing to those "intelligent enough" to be "in the know". If we are making our opinion of theatre based on what we think we should understand rather than on what everyone actually will, then aren't we being arrogant about the value of our own opinion and what those opinions say about us to our peers? It reminds me of when operagoers would happily pay hundreds to sleep through three acts until the fat lady sang, purely to imply being of the class that goes to the opera (and with little expectation of actual enjoyment). This may satiate our desire to feel clever, but it doesn't make for welcoming or informative entertainment.
To illustrate the point, it's worth taking into account some of the comments I heard when leaving he theatre - made by real people and real theatregoers, rather than by those pertaining to be the 'educated minority'. "It's like she can just write anything she wants now and doesn't care if it's any good." "Well, at least we didn't have to pay full price so it wasn't all bad." "I'm so disappointed - hopefully she will get better again with the next thing she does." Add to these, the three people I saw around me who were visibly nodding off (it's only 50 minutes!) and it would have to be supremely arrogant of anyone to ignore the impact it was having on real people who we can likely assume have a high degree of theatrical knowledge (they're seeing Caryl Churchill's new piece at The Royal Court - a choice unlikely to be made at the same time as booking for Mamma Mia).
So I wonder of the value in how to sum up and recommend this piece. I'm sure Churchill aficionados (of which I actually am one) will find reasons to love it and sneer at my lack of intelligence - they don't need my review to colour their opinions. For those who want an introduction to her work, I would strongly urge you to seek out another of her plays. Yes, some of the acting is strong - Linda Bassett as Mrs Jarrett delivers her own continual monologue (the fantastical but overplayed vision of an apocalyptic future (or past) ruined by technology, commerce and celebrity culture) with a skill that manages to both shock and amuse at the surreal. And there are moments in the writing that remind you of the talent at work - such as in the speech by the agoraphobic of the group ("I'd rather hear something bad than something good. I'd rather hear nothing. It's still just the same. It's just the same. It's the same" demonstrating how the rhythmic style can move you so successfully). But whilst these moments are beautiful, they are also too seldom to make the overall theatrical experience as good as it should be. Churchill doesn't talk about her plays so are we just scared of looking stupid if we criticise it? Even if you don't need to understand something to enjoy it - you do need more than is offered here.