The hunger began when eighty percent of food was diverted to tv programmes. Commuters watched breakfast on iPlayer on their way to work. Smartphones were distributed by charities when rice ran out, so the dying could watch cooking…Finally the starving stormed the to centres and were slaughtered and smoked in large numbers. Only when cooking shows were overtaken by sex with football teams did cream trickle back to the shops and rice was airlifted again.
It may only be 55 minutes long, but Caryl Churchill’s new play, Escaped Alone, now playing its premiere season at the Royal Court, where it is directed by James Macdonald, is a gem. Like a valuable jewel, it sparkles and shines and takes on different colours and complexions depending on how you look at it. In some light it looks intriguing, seductive, shimmering, tangible; in the darkness, however, it needs to be found, because its colours depend upon the light – or at least it seems that way.
Macdonald creates two quite distinct spaces for Churchill’s play to unfold. Designer Miriam Buether and Peter Mumford (lights) provide an apocalyptic landscape and a more normal, everyday one. One – a backyard, a garden, a set of four chairs, a simple wooden fence – the everyday outdoor experience for many homeowners. Two – an abyss, a sea of darkness, framed by large red structures which might be picture frames, might be advertising hoardings, might be shattered shop fronts, might be entrances to detention or destruction centres.
These two places seem poles apart. All that connects them is Mrs Jarratt, the one character to inhabit both worlds, the one character whose title attaches her to a man, the one character who knows how the world has turned. But, as the play progresses, the question becomes unavoidable: which place is the truly apocalyptic one?
At first, it seems quite clear. The glorious Linda Bassett, an indomitable, indefatigable and utterly beguiling actor, stands upon the ground, shrouded by obsidian darkness and reflected red intrigue and tells us, dispassionately, for the most part, but also with spiky candid humour, tall tales about the death of humanity. There is not much talk of kings, but a deal about big business and its tentacles. This must be the dystopian world.
But is it?
In the other environs, four women, all in their seventies, one of them Mrs Jarrett, sit in suburbia and chat idly about their families, ordinary things, new fangled gadgets which put “whole worlds in your pocket” and the deep darker truths about their pasts. One murdered someone in a kitchen. One is terrified of cats. One is scared of outings; Tesco’s is a terrifying trial. These three are old friends; Mrs Jarrett knows them as “three women I’ve seen before” and she drops in on them when invited. But Mrs Jarrett is not one of them.
The only thing that is quite certain is that both worlds are devoid of men. And happily so. Because these four women are more interesting, more mercurial, more fascinating than any similar group of men could ever be. In one scene, for no especially discernible reason, the quartet embark upon a joyous and very melodic rendition of Da Doo Ron Ron. It’s uplifting and strange and glorious and sweet – but it also seems slightly rotten, although it is never clear why.
Indeed, all of the suburbia scenes have that ineffable quality. On the surface, they are sweet and gentle and warm; but there are broken phrases, jagged edges of dialogue, potent undercurrents of misery and pain. Rarer than normality, is this an endless cycle of punishment, a kind of genteel purgatory, where cycles of pain are repeated and re-learnt?
Does it matter?
Unlike the last work by Churchill which MacDonald staged at the Royal Court, the bizarrely uninteresting Love and Information, Escaped Alone is constantly engaging, bizarrely and blackly comic, and blisteringly confrontational. The matters which Mrs Jarrett discusses in the Stygian gloom may seem fanciful, but they have the ring of horrific possibility about them given the modern world’s fascination with wealth and its disregard for the poor and dispossessed.
But it’s not just that. This is a play for four women in their seventies. How many of those are written? And of those that are, how many are produced on major stages of the world? For no other reason, Churchill’s Escaped Alone is remarkable just for that. Men are never missed here. These women are astounding in absolutely every way – each of the four give transfixing performances.
Bassett gets the lion share of the material and revels in it. She is an actor at the very height of her powers; while people are busy getting excited about Glenda Jackson’s forthcoming Queen Lear, which has every prospect of being sensational, the simple fact is that Bassett could match her with ease. She works steadily, wonderfully precise and deeply astute. She is a theatrical force of devastating integrity and immense, but simple, power.
Everything she says and does here is majestic, superb, ordinary. Is she the devil or the Messiah? Either way, she is scary.
Deborah Findlay is but a breath behind Bassett. She has that rare ability to seem friendly and calm while at the very same time radiating an inner frenzy – like a 1960’s Dalek faced with a stairwell. Her extraordinary speech about cats is unnerving, powerful and exuberant all at once. You wouldn’t want to be a cat for quids.
As the murderous mother, Vi, June Watson is splendidly laid back, a symphony of suppressed agony and potent regret. Like each of the women here, she gets a monologue of bitter complexity and she shuffles its components like a perfect card sharp dealing out poker hands. Watson is sublime to watch and hear, and no beats are missed.
The final member of the terrific foursome, Kika Markham’s Lena is mousy and restrained, an utterly perfect portrait of fear and trepidation. She is very funny too, indeed they all are. But she is the one who admits she would rather hear something bad than something good, that email was better than talking to people. Dark recesses crease her consciousness.
This is the best play the Royal Court has staged in quite some time. It celebrates women and their central place in life and on stage. At less than an hour, it provides more thought-provoking material than many a three hour play focused on men. It felt funnier, fresher and more invigorating, for instance, than The Hangmen. And like every great piece of art, it speaks to individuals differently.
An unmissable treat with the sensational Linda Bassett at its core. It proves the power of Caryl Churchill’s dramatic writings and cements her place in the pantheon of the great writers of the Twenty-First Century.