When Caryl Churchill wrote her apocalyptic 45-minute miniature Far Away in 2000, some of the critics baulked at her uncompromisingly doom-laden scenario. Given that we’d just entered a new millennium with hope in our hearts, the unadulterated pessimism of the piece was seen as a step too far, even for an innovative and inventive playwright such as Churchill.
Twenty years later, with our planet in the mess it's in, her prescience seems spot-on. Far Away turns out to be more a play for today than yesterday, and this reverberating revival, brilliantly directed by Lyndsey Turner, allows you to experience it with fresh, receptive eyes.
As designer Lizzie Clachan’s metal cube-like structure rises, we are in the midst of a room with a red baize-like background. It’s late at night. A 10-year-old girl, Joan (Sophia Ally on the first night), is talking to her aunt Harper (Jessica Hymes). The child has just climbed out of her bedroom window and watched, with incomprehension, her uncle herding a group of hapless prisoners into a shed while beating them and drawing blood with iron bars.
As children tend to do, Joan calmly asks her aunt lots of questions. As adults tend to do, her aunt gives her evasive answers. But she persists and is finally told that what she saw was something she shouldn’t have witnessed and is fobbed off with the elliptic explanation that she is now “part of a big movement to make things better.”
After a quick change, the second act takes place in a hat factory. Several years have passed. Joan, now an adult (Aisling Loftus), is working in tandem with Todd (Simon Manyonda). The fancy hats they’re making are for some nameless parade. As they tweak away at their bizarre creations, they fall in love. Todd is concerned that there’s something corrupt about the hat-making industry and says he intends to investigate and expose the corruption.
In another dramatic scene change, we see the extravagantly designed hats being worn by a motley group of men and women who, shockingly, and with distinct parallels to ethnic cleansing and the Nazi Holocaust, appear to be on a death march.
In the final scene, set a few years later, we return to Harper’s house. Joan and Ted are married, and, to quote a famous Sean O’Casey line, “the world is in chassis.” The entire universe has been plunged into war involving every facet of human, animal and vegetable existence.
Cats, we’re informed, have sided with the French. Deer can’t make up their minds whose side they’re on and are terrorising shopping malls. Mallards are evil. They’re rapists and on the side of elephants and Koreans. Darkness is everywhere and at the heart of everything.
This surreal, deeply Dystopian nightmare with its relentlessly bleak vision of man’s inhumanity to everything that moves and breathes hardly provides audiences with a fun night out, and 45 minutes of suffocating nihilism is as much as one can take. But, 20 years after its premiere at the Royal Court, it is, more than ever, a play of our times.
There’s a chilling certainty about Turner’s staging, and the quiet desperation conveyed by all four performances contrasts effectively with the shock value of the material.
It’s not to everyone’s taste, but unmissable if you admire the work of the world’s greatest living female playwright.