Caryl Churchill, Far Away (Directed by Lyndsey Turner, Donmar Warehouse)
Given that I’d seen A Number (and missed Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp.), it seemed a good if indulgent idea to catch up with this revival of a 2000 play.
Indulgent, because it clocks in at about £1/minute.
It was written at the time of the Serbian conflict, a time of hideously messy civil war and a refugee crisis (and knock on effects such as the housing of different national identies of Kosovan/Kosovars in towns such as Margate). Now we have ongoing refugee crises, which has been largely driven off the news agenda by Covid-19.
This latter was already visible — the audience for Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, or the Old Lady Comes to Call was noticeably thin, but it had had poor reviews, but a three hundred or so theatre was getting on for half empty. It was my penultimate trip to London before lockdown — Nora: A Doll’s House was pulled from the Young Vic as I reached Waterloo, albeit three hours before curtain up.
Far Away points to the history of utopia-dystopia — Russ’s Whileaway, Blyton’s Far Away, O’Keeffe’s From the Faraway, Nearby and so on — although geographically we might assume this play is set just down the road.
The stage is all but filled with a silvery monolith, perhaps a sarcophagus, which is raised and lowered to allow scene changes, and around which some sequences take place. I was close enough to the corner to be able to see this — other sightline might have been rather restricted.
An aunt (Jessica Hynes) is questioned by her young niece (Sophia Ally) about the noises the latter has overheard and the violence she has witnessed. The niece is clearly lying, or being reticent — she hadn’t left her bedroom, she had but she hadn’t done that … and the aunt keeps coming up with rational, reassuring explanations, gradually conceding ground. Is the uncle an innocent bystander or something more sinister? Unlike the overlapping dialogue I’d anticipated, here there are awkward silences. It is simultaneously darkly comic and sinister. Those silences demand to be filled — with lies, with confessions, with reassurances, with truth.
We have a cut, in time and space, to a conversation between two workers in a hat factory (Joan (Aisling Loftus) and Todd (Simon Manyonda) whose creations ape the surrealer end of fashion catwalks and push it further. There is a sense of danger, of the winner of a hat competition being significant and life changing, and we might slowly realise that Joan is the niece all grown up. We might also feel that the two are falling in love.
As in A Number there are rapid scene changes, but moments here of greater spectacle, as the mood darkens, and there is a moment of true dystopia, totalitarian horror, amidst the absurdity.
I think the genre here is absurd rather than sf — and this comes in the final scenes, where civil war has broken out all over. You cannot tell who is a friend or a foe, and this doesn’t just apply to people, but to animals (deer, bears, anys), lanscapes and weather. All of nature is at war with itself, and parts of it are at war with humanity. Parts of it is in a temporary alliance.
Whilst it’s a powerful set of performances, especially Hynes who has a history of dark comedy, I can’t help but feel that absurdity like surrealism, can risk seeming arbitrary. “[Insert animals] have attacked [insert element from periodic table].” I don’t (usually) feel this with a surreal painting, but perhaps I want more narrative logic from a play. And yet it isn’t the narrative at fault — but there’s … something…
It is certainly estranging and I think longer than forty five minutes might not have helped.