Caryl Churchill really does not get enough credit. She is a master wordsmith and her imaginative interest in form ensures that her plays fascinate as well as entertain. Her double bill dramatic evening, Blue Heart, is terrifically funny as well as insightful and wonderfully, blissfully strange. Smart script, smart performances, smart direction. And a Cassowary. Theatre that is absurd and touching. Unique.
The key…to understand Blue Heart (is) as both love letter and hate mail for the theatre. It’s a love letter because it joyously celebrates the power of storytelling, the dynamism of theatrical representation, the virtuosity of the actor, the mercuriality of language. It tests the actor, director, designer and audience in various mischievous and pleasurable ways. But its also hate mail because…it emerges from a deep dissatisfaction with the conventional mechanics of playmaking, of how to write to play.
These are the insightful words of Dan Rebellato, playwright and academic, writing in the programme for Blue Heart now playing at The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. It is twenty years since Caryl Churchill’s double bill premiered at the Royal Court Theatre and this revival, helmed by David Mercatali makes it seem as fresh and invigorating – and confounding – as that premiere production must have been.
This is not an evening for those who like their theatre in nice neat beginning-middle-end linear packages. Its not an evening for those who like drama to be dramatic and comedy to not. Nor is it an evening for those who want to feel they understand what they have seen. Blue Heart is something quite different, but it is marvellously theatrical and endlessly surprising. Like Willy Loman, Blue Heart requires attention to be paid and, where it is, the results are confounding but tantalisingly engaging.
Taken as a whole, Churchill’s plays riff on themes of isolation, motivation, unspoken fears, complacency and the fracturing of society and the family unit. Sombre, difficult themes – but in Churchill’s hands they dance and shuffle like ribbons of silk on the breeze. You never quite catch up with Churchill’s intent and style, but you have a lot of fun as well as some arresting moments of confounding, pertinent observation along the way.
Modern playwrights may think they are cutting edge or ahead of the game, innovative and on point – but few have the wordsmith alchemy and sheer unbridled chutzpah of Churchill. Blue Heart is a dazzling display of Churchill’s acumen.
A simple idea underpins Heart’s Desire: Mother, Father and Aunt await the return to the family home of a daughter who has been living away from home in Australia. Supper is being laid on the dining table as the waiting continues. Every few moments, the scene resets, starts again and goes in a different direction.
The process repeats. And repeats. Fragments, changes. Different sections are repeated in different ways, but there is an inevitability about returning to the beginning point. Along the way, the different variations reveal unspoken or hidden tensions and anxieties.
This family, like most of modern society, lives together but does not communicate with its members. Feelings fester and rot. Issues remain unresolved and unspoken. Through the repetitions these unreleased issues reach the surface, gain their moment in the Sun.
Mother Alice and Father Brian are bitter about their alcoholic son Lewis. Lewis lives at home, not a prisoner but certainly a recluse. He might be an alcoholic but his parents have passed the point of no return with him. Sister Susy, arriving back from Australia, may bring news or may just rekindle old fires of hatred. Aunt Maisie, like a familial vampire, flusters and carps, helping but grating.
As the repetitions play out, there are hard scenes, surprising scenes and utterly absurd scenes. Some stand out. In one, Alice has enough and walks out on Brian forever – the tension is palpable and as the reality sinks in Brian visibly shrinks, frightened and released all at once. In another, a knock on the door suggests that Susy has returned but, instead, a Cassowary arrives, stalking the family with a deadly beak and a surge of vibrantly coloured plumes. In yet another, armed terrorists arrive and wreak havoc.
The play oscillates continually between these extremes – stark reality and ludicrous absurdity. Of course, this is what life does – the campaign of Donald Trump in America or the entire Brexit scenario illustrate that well enough. Life repeats, mistakes perpetuate, silence endures – Churchill shows us the patent absurdity and entrenched misery of our lives.
The material is testing for performers and director. The repetitions could easily become dull and uninteresting; the test is to ensure they do not, that every reset does not bring a groan of pain from the souls of the audience.
Here, Mercatali has assembled a cast which never flags in terms of energy – every reset is attacked with fresh, resourceful vigour. The pace is cracking and, as a result, even when the experience is unfathomable, it is constantly engaging.
All of the cast impress, but Amanda Boxer’s curious and odd Aunt Maisie and Amelda Brown’s frustrated and passive aggressive Alice are especially memorable. Full marks too to whoever animates the Cassowary – the creature seems truly real, magnetic and frightening at once.
Confounding, exasperating, but a true treat.
In Blue Kettle, a virus invades a play. When the narrative starts, Derek is tracing his birth mother. Or so it seems. Actually, he is approaching various women and seeking to convince them that he is their child, the one they sent into adoption decades earlier. His motivations are unclear – is he a sadist or an opportunist? Or something in between?
Derek invades the lives of the women he targets in the manner of a virus – he changes them and, at least in some way, feeds on the results of his intervention. Partway through the story, odd words appear in the characters’ dialogue. The words kettle and blue substitute for other words without explanation, subtly at first but then more and more aggressively. As the infection accelerates, the language of the virus itself breaks down, the words kettle and blue becoming reduced to fragments.
At first, the invading words seem quirky and intriguing. Later, they make comprehension difficult. Later still, the words cease to matter – its the emotions under the words which matter: comprehend them and the words are unnecessary.
Like Heart’s Desire, Blue Kettle oscillates between whimsy and harsh, bitter truths. The joy of reunion is juxtaposed against the cruelty and indifference of Derek’s machinations. This play is not as absurdist in a comedic sense, but the absurdity of the language deconstruction is just as discombobulating.
The latter stages of this play are remarkably effective. In conversation, the truth of Derek’s malicious lies and their effect on his victims, especially Mrs Plant, is laid bare. Without coherence, the actors must convey meaning and emotion with snatches of language – ket and bl.
These poignant and compelling scenes lie in marked contrast to the relatively happier scenes earlier when Mr and Mrs Vane are celebrating Derek’s surprise arrival in their lives. Likewise, that scene stands in marked contrast to single moments of acute horror – the confrontation between Derek and his mother; the meeting between Derek and Miss Clarence.
The standard of acting in this play is exemplary, with Janet Henfrey’s Mrs Vane and the wonderful Mrs Plant from Boxer particular treats. Alex Beckett is excellent as the amoral Derek, bringing a capricious intensity to proceedings and there is something extraordinarily true about the incomprehension radiating from Gillian Axtel’s real mother of Derek.
The enduring memory here is of Boxer and Beckett in the final stages of the play, when the virus has taken control and is breaking down its own form. The sense that each actor wrings out of the fragments of language is exceptional – and confronting. If we can understand their thoughts and pain without words, why do we need words?
Theatre can be many things. This crisp and sparkling revival from Mercatali reinforces the power and vision of Churchill – a writer of intense and immense power and vision.
An evening of delight, but one that will ricochet around your thoughts long after you have left the theatre. Impressive – exactly as kettle should blue.