It is impossible to imagine the landscape of contemporary drama without Caryl Churchill, the author of more than 30 plays, a handful of adaptations, a clutch of radio plays. And what plays! Top Girls, Cloud Nine, Serious Money, A Number, Far Away, each a landmark in the history of our theatre culture. She has, as the playwright Marius Von Mayerburg has pointed out, "changed the language of theatre and very few playwrights do that". Only the greats deserve that accolade: Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Brecht, Beckett, a roll call to which we could easily add Churchill.
The only woman on the list. Would Churchill be happy to be corralled into the category of "female playwright"? It may be of some solace to those of us who are women and playwrights, who have had to contend with nonsense pronouncements such as "women can't do structure", or who have noted the lack of a robust tradition of women's writing in the theatre to, at last, have a woman take her place in the theatrical canon, but for Churchill herself it might suggest a subtle limitation of her creative enterprise. I made a stab at listing some of the outstanding things about her work: playful, postmodern, serious, funny, theatrical, bold, innovative, poetic, political, surreal … In what way could these qualities be said to be specifically "female"? But to ask this is not to say that Churchill hasn't had a profound engagement with feminism and sexual politics, as plays such as Vinegar Tomand Top Girls prove.
But then, it's tricky to be reductive about her work, which is part of its joy. A Number (2002) may be read as a play about cloning, a dystopian fantasy of a father who banishes the mother from the reproductive process and replicates sons via the lab. When the sons (both played by the same actor, Daniel Craig, in the original Royal Court production) meet they are thrown into a nightmare of identity confusion which leads to tragedy. But the play doesn't end there – a third clone turns up, Michael (also played by Craig), whose contentment with a lack of uniqueness disappoints his father. This all-male play probes questions about the relationship between sexism, capitalism and war. Deceptive in its simplicity, a play for just two actors, it asks a profoundly feminist question through the most theatrical of illusions. And it's funny. Michael tries to enlighten his father as to what makes him happy. Talking of genes he opines: "We've got 30% the same as a lettuce. Does that cheer you up at all?"
Churchill began her writing career in radio and then in 1972 her first stage play Owners was produced at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. A play written at the beginning of the property boom, it asked provocative questions about the relationship between the impulses to own and to destroy. This led to her association with Max Stafford Clark and the Joint Stock Company, where such plays as A Light Shining In Buckinghamshire and Cloud Ninewere written using the Joint Stock method – a period of improvisation and research with actors, after which Churchill would leave to write the play. Both plays are interrogations of entrenched aspects of society; our obsession with property which scuppered revolutionary possibilities in the former, and in Cloud Nine a farcical critique of the lingering impact of our inherited Victorian values on sex, race, sexuality and gender. In Act One, Churchill removes the body from the role, so that you are rewarded with sublime moments of theatre such as Betty, the Victorian wife of a colonial administrator, being played by a male actor. Here "she" is in conversation with her admirer, adventurer Harry Bagley:
HARRY: You have been thought of where no white women has ever been thought of before.
BETTY: It's one way of having adventures. I suppose I never will go in person.
Churchill's take on Brechtian alienation has audacity and comic verve, making us see anew the constructed nature of our beings and opening up possibilities for change. During Act Two, set in 1980s London, in a metaphorical reversal the modern, middle-aged Betty does "go in person" having made the discovery of self-pleasuring: "Sometimes I do it three times in one night and it really is great fun."
Throughout her writing life Churchill has experimented with form as well as process, which is why the question "What is a Caryl Churchill play?" is hard to answer; they are protean. Churchill is a playwright with a body of work that has continually responded to the "form and pressure of the times", as if she has turned the idea of what a play should be over and over, revisioning it beyond the accepted imaginative boundaries, to produce plays that are always revolutionary. Blue/Heart throws a spanner into the mechanism of each one-act play (in her work, a slash marks out when a character cuts into another's monologue). In Heart's Desire, while a family await the return of their daughter from Australia, the play constantly "resets itself" as if infected by a virus, so that we witness 25 rewindings and a resulting host of unexpected events – the entrance of a 10ft-bird or a class of school children. In Blue Kettle, as a young man pretends to be the long-lost son of various women, a "virus" affects language so that selectively words are replaced by either "blue" or "kettle" until the play at last is extinguished under the weight of non-communication. In "destroying" both plays Churchill asks questions about identity; are we more fluid than the stabilities of language and plotting in conventional narrative suggest?
Far Away (2000) again demonstrates Churchill's constant invention, pushing the traditional three-act format to the limits of its possibilities. In this dream-like play we first see Harper and Joan, an aunt with her young niece who has been an unintentional witness to an ethnic cleansing atrocity in a lonely farmhouse. Harper must recruit the innocent Joan to her cause. The dark fairytale begins. The two following scenes, each a vestigial act, plunge us into intense scenarios – of hat-making for concentration camp victims, and finally the fleeting visit home of an exhausted Joan in the midst of total war. As we, the audience, fill in the gaps between acts we are left with a disturbing question: how far away are we from such blatant ideological war-mongering and its emotional territory of paranoia, hatred and loss?
The question is not how has Churchill influenced women playwrights but rather, is there a contemporary playwright, female or male, who hasn't been influenced by her oeuvre? Who can forget such iconic moments as Act One of Top Girls, that surreal dinner party with guests including Pope Joan, who describes giving birth during an 11th-century ecclesiastical parade, being pulled off her horse and stoned to death; or Jack, the impotent neighbour in Vinegar Tom threatening to kill Alice unless she gives him back his erection (desperate, Alice puts her hand between his legs which does the trick, "Thanks Alice", says Jack "I wasn't sure you were a witch till then." Later Alice admits to us "I'm not a witch but I wish I was …"); slow Angie having the last word, "Frightening", in Top Girls, summing up the Thatcher era with chilling prescience; or the murdered body of Val in Fen, stuffed into a wardrobe, suddenly reappearing on the opposite side of the stage.
This last image reveals Churchill's preoccupation with Foucault's concept of "docile bodies", bodies disciplined by institutions such as the family or factory into becoming obedient wives/workers, one such being Val, an oppressed rural worker. Val's sudden reappearance is a theatrical coup that left theatre-goers gasping. But she is also pointing to the possibilities of opening up a new "unreal" theatrical space that might encompass a woman's desire not controlled by the male gaze, patriarchy or capitalism.
Her latest work Love and Information has no named characters, rather a series of unnamed voices in a collection of encounters circling around the central preoccupation. It is up to us as the audience to draw our conclusions as to the meaning of the possible connections and disconnections between the scenarios.
What is the meaning of the lack of information the writer is giving us? On paper the white spaces seem frightening, threatening to engulf the words. Without the usual signposts of stage directions or scene numbers, the lack of information becomes terrifying in some way – or is it like the space in a therapist's room, where you encounter your own thinking and feeling? There is always darkness in Churchill's work.
In the scenario entitled "Lab", the most precise scientific rendering of the slicing of a chick's brain in order to understand the pecking mechanism is particularly brutal for being conveyed in unemotional scientific jargon. One starts to wonder – what is information without love? Is it a madness like the obsessive fan in "Fan" where the need to know everything, disguised as love, threatens in another way?
This mysterious, powerful play is like a disquisition on two of the most powerful poles in our lives: needing to know and needing to love. It is also the work of a great artist, a late work, so in some way it is a reflection on all that has preceded it. In "Climate", a voice states: "I'm frightened for the children," and later: "It's whether they drown or starve or get killed in the fight for water." Here is a writer who can convey with simplicity and directness such a terrible fear. Is this the information you want? Here it is. Can you live with it?
From her early historical, epic Brechtian plays to the more surreal later plays, Churchill has lit a blazing trail. Her career is unmatched in contemporary theatre and she stands with the greats in insisting, with brilliance, on her vision.
•Guardian Extra members can save £5 on selected performances of Love and Information.
•Jumpy by April de Angelis is at the Duke of York Theatre until 3 November.
• This article was amended on 7 September 2012 because confusion in the editing process had introduced two errors. First, the article said "In Act One [of the play Cloud Nine], Churchill – under the influence of theorist Judith Butler – removes the body from the role, so that you are rewarded with sublime moments of theatre". In fact the play predates the relevant work by Judith Butler and so cannot have been influenced by it. Second, it said "Blue/Heart, now adopted into the common playwriting lexicon, throws a spanner into the mechanism of each one-act play (in her work, a slash marks out when a character cuts into another's monologue)". What the writer originally wrote was that the slash mark used by Churchill has entered the playwriting lexicon. These two errors have been corrected.
Caryl Churchill’s penchant for innovation and experimentation has earned her a secure place among anyone’s list of most important contemporary dramatists. Since Owners made its 1972 debut in her native London (at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs), and here in New York the next year (at the Mercer-Shaw Theater), her work has consistently enjoyed success on both sides of the Atlantic. Her widely anthologized plays like Cloud 9 and Top Girls are standard fare on college stages and syllabi throughout Britain and North America, but she has never been content to rest on her laurels and settle into a distinctive style, and instead continues to test the formal and thematic limits of the English speaking stage.
The last three plays of Churchill’s produced in New York (The Skriker at the Public in 1996, Blue Kettle at BAM in 1998 and Far Away at New York Theatre Workshop in 2002) shared in a palpable sense of the catastrophic, speaking directly to our millennial and then post-9/11 cultural anxiety. The philosophical and theatrical daring Churchill offers with her latest, A Number, might well be said to be by now in her career an expectation. Yet again she taps into our most contemporary concerns, if not fears. Ostensibly an examination of the ethical and emotional consequences of human cloning, a father talks with three of his offspring in five scenes.
The original production at London’s Royal Court in the fall of 2002 met with widespread acclaim. With a director (Stephen Daldry, The Hours and Billy Elliot) and cast (Michael Gambon, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, as the father and Daniel Craig, Road to Perdition, as the son/s) familiar to American audiences for their film careers, it wasn’t a question of when but how soon it would come here, and if the production would remain the same.
The casting of legendary playwright Sam Shepard (returning to the stage after a more than thirty-year absence) as the father and Dallas Roberts (returning to the Workshop, where he impressed in Adam Rapp’s solo Nocturne) as his son/s, under the direction of James Macdonald, indicates that the New York premiere will be something more than just a clone of the London production.
This marks Macdonald’s fourth collaboration with Churchill, having directed Hot Fudge, Lives of the Great Poisoners, and Thyestes. Macdonald regularly directs the Royal Shakespeare Company, but is best known for his staging of new, often controversial plays, such as the definitive productions at the Royal Court of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, Cleansed and 4.48 Psychosis. Although the one-week visit of his revival of 4.48 just this past last week of October is technically his New York directorial debut, A Number will be his first attempt at directing American actors on the American stage.
James Macdonald met with The Brooklyn Rail at the end of the first week of rehearsal, mid-October, in an office of the New York Theatre Workshop to discuss the play.
David Kilpatrick (Rail): How much will this production of A Number differ from the original production directed by Stephen Daldry at the Royal Court three years ago?
James Macdonald: I’m doing something a little bit different from what Stephen did. But then, of course, any director who prides himself will do something different than what the last director did.
Rail: In terms of Churchill pieces the play seems one of the least imagistic.
Macdonald: It’s a play that resists heavy staging. It is very much about what is going on internally between these two (or these four, depending on how you look at it) people, and that has to be the main focus. And in a way the more pure you make that focus the more the play’s gonna work; it has to be the aim.
Rail: Are you making any minor adaptations to the text for the American stage, changing pounds to dollars, etc.?
Macdonald: We’re doing a little bit of that, but it’s been very gratifying to discover how little there is to do. The play’s so open actually, and so not culturally specific that we’ve had to change very few references, and apart from that it sounded (to my ear at least) great for an American audience.
Rail: It’s a rather time-tested device—the idea of the double or the twin—but the idea of cloning seems rather timely. Do you find that in the context of the debate over stem-cell research and things of this nature that it is a very timely play, that this is a particularly opportune time for such a consideration of the power of technology and the future of human identity?
Macdonald: I think the play isn’t really a debate play about medical ethics. But by the same token Caryl—as she very often does—follows contemporary cultural developments and is bang-up to the minute in what she’s talking about. So it’s not the primary focus of the play to debate that stuff, but one can’t deny that it’s interesting at the moment to see a play which for most of its duration makes a very strong argument against cloning and then flips that in its last scene to do the most provocative thing you could possibly do at the moment.
Rail: Is it more important for Dallas Roberts to emphasize differences between Bernard #1, Bernard #2, and Michael Black, or is it better for those differences to be understated?
Macdonald: Well, I don’t know yet where we’ll end up with it, but I think it is important that there is a balance. I think one could overstate the question of similarity or the question of difference. And in a way we’ve got to the science of how the genes of identical twins will encourage them to be similar, but culture will encourage them to be different or experience will create difference. That’s part of the fun of doing this play, I think, for an actor playing this part, is to make the difference. But by the same token, because the story says on one level they have this innate similarity, then you have to tell that story as well. You have to find a way to tell both stories without over-egging either of them.
Rail: Sam Shepard called A Number the most brilliant play since Waiting for Godot…?
Macdonald: I think I did hear that, yes.
Rail: How would you say this play ranks among her most significant plays? Does A Number mark some kind of departure for Churchill? She has a reputation for always re-inventing herself.
Macdonald: I can’t get terribly excited about the idea of “ranking,” but I personally love it. I think it’s an extraordinarily dense and interesting play and a wonderful thing for two actors, and for a director as well, to engage with.
I think like any very good writer she reinvents herself from play to play. This play is different from the last one, which is different from the one before. You could say it is a new thing for her to write a play exclusively for two men. The subject is a new subject for her. It’s short and her plays have been short recently, so there is continuity there. She’s found a new linguistic style, which is particular to this play, but like any good writer she will do that from play to play.
Rail: Why would you say a new linguistic style?
Macdonald: It seems to be a play in which two people are under such stress that they can’t end their sentences a lot.
Rail: She’s famous for the slashes in the text to indicate overlapping speech.
Macdonald: But she’s not doing that in this play, so, no. I think that she’s just written this one in a way in which it seemed to need to be written and that’s made so much of the differences there.
Rail: Those exchanges in Blue Kettle [the second one-act of the double-bill Blue Heart], between the would-be son and the would-be mothers, has sort-of that conversational space, in terms of “are you my parent, and what kind of relationship can we have?”
Macdonald: Well, the themes that are in this play are the themes that go around and around in her work everywhere, really. I think the central themes of identity, parents and children, cruelty to children, freewill against determinism, those are all themes that have been in her work for thirty years, really, and in greater or lesser degrees in different plays. So in a way, it’s like with all writers—they have a set of ideas with which they engage with the world.
Rail: Obviously you are working with a playwright whom many would claim is the greatest living British playwright and directing an actor whom many would claim is the greatest living American playwright. Are there any American dramatists whose work you admire and you’d like to work with?
Macdonald: I love Sam’s work and I’ve directed three of Sam’s plays, so it’s a pleasure and a privilege to work with the man himself. I adore this story of his admiration for her work, and to have the two of them in the same room at the same time is just…
Rail: It seems to me that with his character, Salter [the father], as soon as you judge him you’ve lost him. Is there a point of identification with any one character or viewpoint?
Macdonald: I think it’s better if there’s not. I think it’s better if they [the characters] are all complex and the play takes you one-way and then another. I’d rather as a director keep things as open-ended as possible.
Rail: A suspension of the ethical? Do you care whether the audience sees it in one way or the other?
Macdonald: Yeah, I think quite a lot about the journey that you are helping an audience make through the story. I don’t know how much I think about the ethical. That sounds a bit alarming, doesn’t it? I always think it’s alarming if a writer seems to be peddling a particular line on something and I think good writers, extremely good writers, will not peddle a line. Just when you think they are peddling a line, they do the opposite. But any good play makes life more complex. If you know what the play’s going to say then it’s hardly worth going to see.
A Number, written by Caryl Churchill and directed by James Macdonald, begins previews November 16th and opens December 7th; New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street; all tickets $65; 212-239-6200 or www.nytw.org for more info.
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