Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.
Week 1: Caryl Churchill's Here We Go (2015)
I read Caryl Churchill’s Here We Go in Foyles on Charing Cross Road when I had some time to spare when in London. Sorry Caryl Churchill. Sorry Foyles. Although I will most likely buy another Churchill play soon. And I did buy something else on that visit to Foyles. Interestingly, although my main purpose on that trip was to see Pinter’s The Homecoming in the West End, Here We Go seems to have made a lasting impression. I couldn’t get to see Dominic Cooke’s production during its rather short run at the National (hence one reason to want to read it), but, from reading reviews, I gathered it was very divisive and focused on death.
The play is a triptych of acts: ‘Here We Go’ is set at a wake after a funeral; ‘After’ in some sort of void after the man’s death; ‘Getting There’ before the man’s passing in a care home.
In the first act, the lines are clipped so we only get the gist of what the characters are saying. But the fragments of speech that they say are the most crucial parts of what they’re saying. Churchill is so observant of everyday speech. Over the act and the catches of conversation, we build up a picture of the dead man: Labour, ran to be MP, was once a looker (although the text says that it doesn’t necessarily have to be the same person who has deceased in each act). When reading a play, you try to imagine it staged. Staging the play, I guess that a director is faced with the decision of whether to surround the glimpses of conversation with moments of silence as if left to complete the sentences ourselves or to move straight onto the next line. In Cooke’s production, I hear, he went for the latter option, constantly moving the act and different conversations forward. It is remarkable that the deceased man has more of a presence in this act despite not being in it, compared to act three which he is in.
At the end of the first act are bits of speech of how characters die which Churchill stipulates that the actors should spontaneously step forward and interrupt the flow of the scene to address the audience. What a challenge to a group of performers to have to work together to allow these spontaneous additions. Plus, how brilliant is it of the playwright to reflect the play’s subject matter in the form of the play? The actors are expecting the speeches but don’t know when just like we know we are going to die but don’t know when. The last, and most striking of these, (although the morbidity of them all is strangely fascinating) is of someone (we don’t quite know who in the text) saying how she commits suicide and regrets how her body was found (if I’m remembering correctly). It ends the act (in the text at least) on an uneasy note of regret and the unknown which, in a way, is a neat way of seguing into act two.
If the sparsity of the language in the first act is Churchill not over-egging the pudding, act two sees an almost stream of unconscious thought. Like Beckett’s Not I but with more focus on the body, it sees the man, now dead, question where he is, what will happen to his soul and body and ponder over a lot of what ifs. That is if I’m remembering it right, the hustle and bustle of Christmas shoppers around me at that point made me perhaps go through the scene at a pace which is perhaps not unlike how it could be performed. He mentions mythic gods and wonders about the possibilities of life after death, questioning the unknowns of death. How daring, some might say, it is of Churchill (now 77) to push past those taboos of death and to put on stage thoughts about death that are perhaps not often heard.
Death in theatre can make audiences uncomfortable. The opening scene in Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen (beautifully orchestrated by director Matthew Dunster) had the audience in stitches one moment with the characters’ jibes at the north and inappropriately-timed grammatical corrections. Then, as the rope is put round Hennessy’s neck and the floor opens up to hang a most-probably innocent man, we were in stunned silence. Likewise, in Catherine Hayes’ formally tedious play Skirmishes, we are expecting the elderly and mostly unconscious Mother (as she’s called) to die at some point throughout the play. It is enough, then, to provoke uncomfortable (perhaps risible?) laughter when, after eventually passing away, she alarmingly comes back to life after a few moments. Hayes’ point, perhaps, is that death can be painfully drawn-out for the dying and their loved ones.
The third act of Here We Go, from one perspective, seems to dramatise that decline in old age. If he is the same man spoken about in the first act and of whose many achievements we hear, here he is reduced to an ailing body, his life a repeated series of simple actions. It’s sad and made me think of elderly relatives and is also a reminder of the way elderly people can be treated. The act’s title, ‘Getting There’, could refer to his approaching death but also made me think of what the scene is getting to, dramatically. I would have been curious to see Cooke’s production. The act’s length may have been tedious at times but I’m guessing tedium and becoming conscious of yourself and the bodies around you is part of it. On the page, the man is continually dressed and undressed ‘for as long as the scene lasts’, leaving it up to the director to decide its actual playing length. But there are two characters in this scene. It’s a scene of binaries: the carer and the patient, the old and the young. But interestingly, as Matt Trueman has also pointed out, they now share the same life, carrying out the simple tasks, dressing and undressing, walking to the chair and to the bed, in the care home.
Churchill is always pushing the boundaries of form in theatre. Here We Go is no exception. It is testing and inventive and as perplexing as its subject. I have so many thoughts about the play, all of which I can’t articulate here, but Here We Go has made me look forward to her new play, Escaped Alone which opens at the Royal Court later this month, even more.