Depending on your point of view, Caryl Churchill, one of our most eminent contemporary dramatists, either extends the boundaries of theatrical form, or she shrinks it. But whatever your interpretation, there is never anything commonplace about her work – as she once again proves in Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp., four one-act plays that begin with the shortest and end with the longest. Death features prominently in the first three, as does the underlying theme of the need we all have in our lives for myths, fables, legends and folklore.
Her oblique use of language is characteristically demonstrated in Glass, the first of the quartet. It’s a whimsical, ultimately disturbing curtain raiser, set on a giant mantelpiece against a pitch black backdrop in which four household items – a clock, a vase, a plastic dog and a young girl made of glass – materialise and take on lives of their own without attempting to look anything like the objects they play. Embedded in the surrealism of the scene is a slender narrative that more than hints at abuse, self-harm, human fragility and even suicide.
Though the second piece features a young lad seen scribbling away in some notepad and offering an occasional interjection, it’s basically a robust monologue in which Tom Mothersdale, playing the embodiment of every vengeful god of ancient classical literature, sits on top of a cotton-wool cloud and gives us a Reader’s Digest version of all the horrors and physical obscenities as elaborated in Greek mythology, including cannibalism and incest. It’s a tour de force, and it may be somewhat glib of me to say so, but it put me in mind of the great American comedienne Anna Russell, who hilariously took the mickey out of Wagner’s epic Ring cycle in a similar manner. Except of course, she was funnier.
The conceit behind the cynical third play, Bluebeard’s Friends, is to bring together a quartet of the notorious serial killer’s friends and neighbours, ordinary folk who, over a glass of wine, and despite the horror of the many murders he committed, casually remark how beautifully he played the piano. Though no one actually approves of his lethal leanings, they view him as nothing more than a psychopath who couldn’t help it and probably regretted the evil he perpetrated. They even contemplate selling his victim’s bloodstained dresses for profit and opening his notorious castle to the public. Comedy doesn’t get any blacker than this, and Churchill rubs our noses in how complicit – where violence is concerned – we’ve all become. It’s chillingly played by Deborah Findlay, Sarah Niles, Sule Rimi and Toby Jones.
Jones and Findlay also appear in Imp, the fourth and most substantial of the quartet. They play Jimmy and Dot, elderly cantankerous cousins who cohabit in what could easily be mistaken for a sexless marriage. Both have their problems. He’s an anxiety-driven depressive who takes comfort in long-distance running and loses himself in fictional characters such as King Lear and Hamlet. She’s an erstwhile hospital nurse who has served time in prison for abusing one of her patients. She’s also obsessed by an imp she keeps locked up in a wine bottle and whom she regularly consults when she wants a serious wish gratified. Into their lives waft young Niamh (Louisa Hartland) and Rob (Mothersdale), who begin an affair.
Unmistakably Pinteresque in the way it conceals more than it reveals, Imp (as well as the other three shorter pieces) is engagingly directed by James Macdonald, who brings an underlying sense of incipient violence and tension to it. The simple but strikingly effective sets are by Miriam Buether.
Sandwiched between the three shorter plays in the first half of the evening are two wordless Cirque du Soleil-type solo acts. The first is a juggler and the second a contortionist. No explanations are given for these divertissements, which are more baffling than anything in Churchill’s text.