Caryl Churchill

Blue Heart


C Too, St Columba’s by the Castle, Edinburgh

The Bathway Theatre Company comprises students and recent alumni from the University of Greenwich, and they have certainly chosen a complex piece for their Edinburgh Fringe debut. Caryl Churchill’s 1997 Blue Heart consists of two one-act plays, and they are both extremely difficult. But these young performers seem undaunted, rising gamely to the challenge, proving that they are more than capable of delivering Churchill’s high concept work.

First up is Heart’s Desire, where a London-based family awaits a visit from their daughter, who has been living in Australia. They run through the same scene, again and again, some ideas repeated word for word, while others change or are replaced. It’s about wish-fulfilment, clearly, about divergent paths, and choices made. We think it’s also probably about the writing process, about the possibilities of a blank page, of editing and redrafting. Whatever, it must be hard work to perform, a nightmare to remember lines where the same cues act as prompts for different responses, but these actors make short work of it. Bethan Shaw is both funny and tragic as the girl’s mother, Alice, her timing impeccable, and Jason Kennedy (as Bryan) and Jess Buckley (Maisie) are also impressive, his obvious anxiety contrasting beautifully with her placid acceptance.

The second act is Blue Kettle, starring John Dawson as Derek, an adoptee apparently seeking his birth mother, convincing several women that he is their son. His aim, he says, is to defraud them, to claim their money – and they are more than willing to believe his story; they want it to be true. The title refers to the disintegration of language in this piece – the words ‘blue’ and ‘kettle’ are inserted into the dialogue with increasing frequency, at first replacing just occasional nouns, or verbs that rhyme with blue, but soon reducing whole conversations to repeated utterances of the same two words – yet still, somehow, we can discern the meaning, the essence of what’s being said. It’s as audacious an idea as we might expect from Churchill, and another mighty challenge for the performers. But again, this company proves its worth, earning our admiration for their control of the material. Blue Kettle is more of an ensemble piece than Heart’s Desire and the actors work skilfully together – even the detailed set change between the acts is perfectly choreographed, woven into the production, fascinating to observe.

Tucked away down a flight of stairs at the back of a church on Johnson Terrace, this might be hard to find. But it’s well worth seeking out this ambitious production – it really is a little gem.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

The Skriker

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Royal Exchange Theatre/MIF15, Manchester

The Skriker is a screaming, hurtling explosion of a play, quite unlike anything I have seen staged at the Royal Exchange before.

I’ve never seen the Exchange like this before either; it’s been transformed to accommodate this play. From the moment we enter the beautiful old building, we know something’s different: there’s an avenue of trees casting a dappled green light, and the glass theatre-pod in the middle of the Great Hall is shrouded in black.

We’re in the first gallery; as we settle into our seats and peer down into the gloom, it takes us a while to notice that all 400 of the stage-level seats have been removed, making way for a series of rough wooden tables, laid out like the spokes of a broken wheel. It feels, somehow, like being inside a tree.

Although our seats give a us a clear overview of the performance space, the intention, clearly, is an immersive experience: there are chairs at most of the tables, and about sixty audience members thus become part of the set. They are, then, more than witnesses: they are complicit and involved. If they chose to, they could intervene…

I’ve long been a fan of Caryl Churchill’s work; she asks difficult questions without obvious answers, and seems to revel in the awkwardness of rejecting clear-cut rhetoric. Yes, she’s political, but she’s not interested in soundbites or tub-thumping. The world is more complex than that, and so are our reactions to it. This refusal to tread a familiar path is reflected in the theatrical form. Churchill’s plays do not conform to any accepted norms – and they’re not always easy to watch.

The Skriker, certainly, is a challenging piece. The eponymous role, played here with great relish and enormous talent by Maxine Peake, is a kind of ancient fairy, a damaged, polluted, angry spirit, raging at humans for destroying the earth. Josie and Lily, two troubled teenagers, become the focus of the Skriker’s fury, forced to confront the calamity that climate change has wrought.

The banquet scene, set down in Fairyland, is central to the play and it’s here that the themes are crystallised. Josie, propelled into this underworld by greed and curiosity, participates enthusiastically in the feast, even when an anguished woman reveals that the glistening platters are actually laden with parts of her body: ‘That’s my head!’ It makes no difference; the revellers continue to gorge, even as they witness her destruction, their dancing becoming ever wilder and more reckless. The woman implores Josie not to drink the wine, making clear that, if she does, she too will be destroyed. But no one heeds the warning. It’s not the subtlest of metaphors and – in a play this complicated – that’s no bad thing. Here, it seems, is a central premise we can use to inform our understanding of other, more opaque ideas; here, we have a clear allegory for mankind’s wanton destruction of the planet, continuing, as we do, to drive, fly, hunt rare animals, overfish the seas, cut down rain forests and frack our blighted earth

It’s an important play: frightening and angry and funny and weird. Maxine Peake is perfectly cast as the shape-shifting fairy; she inhabits each persona so completely, it’s a wonder to behold. It doesn’t matter, really, that she overshadows the younger, less experienced actors playing Josie and Lily (Laura Elsworthy and Juma Shorkah respectively), as this was always meant to be the Skriker’s play. The ensemble of wraiths and spirits embody freakish malevolence and anxiety, and the choir cements the savage beauty of the other-worldly air.

A full five stars for this one, then, but if you go to watch it, be prepared: this is not light-hearted entertainment. It’s hard work – but it’s worth it.

5 stars

Susan Singfield