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Caryl Churchill at 80 – celebrating UK theatre’s ‘ultimate playwright’

Caryl Churchill. Photo: Marc Brenner Caryl Churchill. Photo: Marc Brenner

Leading theatremakers including Vicky Featherstone, Rufus Norris, Dominic Cooke and Maxine Peake tell David Benedict about the writer’s influence on their work and how she has redefined the language of theatre

It would be laughable were it not so lamentable: in 1982, the now-defunct organisation Women in Entertainment drew up a series of statistics laying bare the industry’s shocking gender disparity. Among the most striking findings was that of all the plays produced by repertory theatres across the country in the preceding year, just 26 were written by women. Of those 26 plays, 24 were by Agatha Christie.

Four years later, reviewing the West End transfer of Woman in Mind, one male national broadsheet critic hailed “our leading feminist dramatist”. The writer in question? Alan Ayckbourn. To add insult to injury, that review appeared seven years after the national tour of the structurally daring comedy of sexual politics Cloud Nine and four years after the audacious personal-is-political, state-of-the-nation drama Top Girls – the two plays that arrestingly sealed the reputation of Caryl Churchill. Since then, theatre has caught up, and as Churchill prepares to celebrate her 80th birthday next week she is widely acknowledged as one of Britain’s greatest living playwrights.

Samantha Colley in Far Away by Caryl Churchill at the Young Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Samantha Colley in Far Away by Caryl Churchill at the Young Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton

It’s not just misogyny that kept Churchill’s name out of many mainstream discussions of great British writers. Born in 1938, a year after Tom Stoppard and between Harold Pinter (1930) and David Hare (1947), she has worked almost exclusively in theatre, the art form accorded ever less currency in allegedly ‘serious’ cultural debate. Those three contemporaries all worked in film, which, accidentally or not, garnered them considerably more mainstream attention. Churchill did not follow. Nor has she followed in the footsteps of David Mamet, Joe Orton, Michael Frayn – and even Arthur Miller – in writing a novel, the form taken most seriously by the commentariat. In 1988, she admitted to having written what she described as “a full-length children-and-ponies book” but since she was 14 when she wrote the work, it’s unlikely to see the light of day.

As Churchill told dance critic Judith Mackrell in 1994, around the time of her National Theatre play The Skriker: “I’ve sometimes thought I should try to write a novel but it just doesn’t take life. I can’t do it for more than a page without thinking this would be more vivid, more condensed, more intense, more exciting if it was some sort of play.”

The key phrase here is “some sort of play”. Like no other living dramatist, she has persistently re-imagined, dramatised and demonstrated different ideas of what a play can be.

Caryl Churchill: Influencing young playwrights

Churchill’s influence on the generations of writers that have followed is clear, although not in an immediately obvious way. Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of London’s Royal Court, says: “Lots of young writers try to write like Sarah Kane, but I don’t see plays where people are trying to write like Caryl Churchill. She influences writers in terms of ambition and encouraging their fearlessness. She’s the one that they want to be, the one they learn from. When they’re struggling, they read her plays and it gives them courage. She is regarded as the ultimate playwright, no question.”

Playwright and director Nina Raine, who was assistant director to Stephen Daldry on Churchill’s 2000 play Far Away, points to her generosity. “Caryl read my first play Rabbit and met me for a hot chocolate,” she says. “It obviously wasn’t her sort of play at all, but she was kind enough to chat and ask me useful questions about it. She’s a bit of a trouper.” Raine also recalls that the stage manager on Far Away was the then emerging playwright Debbie Tucker Green. “Honestly, I think she just wanted the chance to work with Caryl.”

Across her 60-year career, the easiest thing to spot about Churchill’s work is its increasing concentration. Top Girls, first staged in 1982, is a full-evening, three-act drama. The chilling, fiercely imaginative Far Away runs under an hour on just 36 widely spaced pages of dialogue. Several of her more recent plays seem like stark, intense snapshots.

James Macdonald, director of her latest play Escaped Alone as well as countless other premieres and revivals of her work over almost 30 years, agrees. “She didn’t invent short plays, but she was one of the first people to make a play last the length it needed to be – which might be 20 or even 10 minutes.”

Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson in Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill at Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre Downstairs. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson in Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill at Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre Downstairs. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Her distillation down to dramatic essence is far from her only distinctive quality as a writer. What really makes her radical is her constant reinvention of form, the shape, the style, the rhythm, the scope, the scale of playwriting. And not only has she changed the way plays are watched and perceived, she has even changed the way plays are physically written.

The now standard practice of indicating overlapping dialogue – where the writer notates precisely where in a line a character interrupts another with the first speaker continuing – is her invention. Nick Hern, her longtime publisher first at Methuen, then when he quit to set up on his own as Nick Hern Books, remembers sitting down with Churchill in an office at Methuen and deciding to use the oblique stroke to indicate the point of interruption. A seemingly tiny matter of punctuation, it transformed dialogue writing and indicates the pace and rhythm of an exchange and the scene. According to Hern, it first appeared in print in 1982 in Top Girls but, as R Darren Gobert discovered while researching his book The Theatre of Caryl Churchill, it was an idea she had been mulling while writing Identical Twins in 1966, and as far back as Having a Wonderful Time, an unpublished play from 1960.

Alistair McDowall playwright

Alistair McDowall. Photo: William Douglas
Alistair McDowall. Photo: William Douglas

What really strikes me about Caryl Churchill is that no one has been this consistently good, this consistently surprising, for this amount of time. Her writing is endlessly restless; it’s exactly the writing life you want as a playwright. She’s never really repeated herself.

She’s likened to Beckett, as their trajectories have similarities – as the plays go on, they get shorter and the language becomes more spare. But if that’s minimalism, she’s also had her maximal Joyce moments in a play like The Skriker, which is like a language overload.

Everyone talks about her use of form but one thing that’s not talked about enough is that she’s really good at plot. She’s not just an experimental writer but also a great storyteller.

If you’re a writer interested in language and form, she feels like a companion, even if you haven’t met her. When you worry you’re going too strange, she’s already been there weirder and better. I can’t think of a play I’ve written that hasn’t been dug out of a hole by one of her plays and shown the right way.

It seems, through conversation with my peers, that the two plays with the biggest impact on my generation are Sarah Kane’s Blasted and Far Away by Caryl Churchill. Far Away is endlessly talked about. It feels so bespoke and beautifully crafted but the scale is enormous – it’s so wrought, so sprawling. Not many writers have redefined the language of theatre, but she has.

Caryl Churchill: Experimenting with form

On its widest scale, Churchill’s fascination with form has led to genuinely uncategorisable work. Hotel, first staged in 1997, started from an idea for an opera with composer Orlando Gough, consisting of eight lots of people in eight rooms that would appear on stage as one room. In 1991, Macdonald directed her Lives of the Great Poisoners, conceived and written with Gough and choreographer Ian Spink. Audiences and critics left asking whether it was a play, a dance-drama or an opera.

When viewed up close, techniques that theatre practitioners now take for granted often turn out to have been experiments initiated by Churchill. The laugh-out-loud Cloud Nine in 1979 – which ran Off-Broadway for two years – was set in two time zones: Victorian Africa and contemporary London. Churchill not only slammed them against each other, she telescoped time by using the same characters in both eras, while only ageing them up 25 years. Thus, a boy in the colonial African first act becomes a 30-something man in the second.

Maxine Peake and Juma Sharkah in The Skriker by Caryl Churchill at the Royal Exchange, Manchester. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Maxine Peake and Juma Sharkah in The Skriker by Caryl Churchill at the Royal Exchange, Manchester. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Not only did the actors play more than one character, she and director Max Stafford-Clark used them in cross-gender casting long before anyone was using the term. The original production featured Antony Sher as thunderingly grumpy five-year-old Cathy. Age was equally flexible: a young Miriam Margolyes played the reproving grandmother; Julie Covington played a young gay boy, in the first act and then his late-middle-aged mother in the second. Complicated in conception, it plays like a breeze, a deliciously comic satire that turns deeply moving.

Small wonder that even 20 years ago, Stafford-Clark observed, of going into schools to do workshops: “Telling them we’re doing some plays by Churchill and that she might be involved, teachers faint and genuflect. She shaped the way they teach and think about drama more than any other writer.”

Cloud Nine was one of several plays Churchill wrote for – and with – Stafford-Clark’s hugely influential writing company, Joint Stock. As the last journalist to interview Churchill (since 1997 she has politely shunned all requests), she told me about working with the company: “There was a strong anti-sentimental feeling in theatre. There was an attraction to making continuities with dramatic ideas rather than going a long way down an emotional journey – which didn’t mean there wouldn’t be very emotional things.”

The first play she wrote for Joint Stock was Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, a study of the Diggers, Levellers and Ranters movements that grew out of the English Civil War. In the cast of six, several actors at different points played the same character. Among the audience for the show at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs was Roger Allam, not long out of the drama course at Manchester University. Debates about the land, ownership, hardship and political allegiances might seem theatrically arid but Allam remembers it as “edge-of-the-seat stuff”. He wasn’t alone in the assessment. Plays and Players declared it “one of the finest pieces of English playwriting for years”.

Allan Williams and Ashley McGuire in Light Shining In Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill at the Lyttelton, National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Allan Williams and Ashley McGuire in Light Shining In Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill at the Lyttelton, National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Allam had previously performed in the premiere of Churchill’s Vinegar Tom, another 17th century-set play she had written the same year. It was also developed via workshops with the actors, that time with the feminist theatre company Monstrous Regiment. It was a rare case of Churchill accepting a commission, something she hasn’t done for decades, generally either writing something in rapid response to an idea or preferring to let a play simmer over time and delivering it only when she considers it ready.

Part of the success of Vinegar Tom, a play about witches, was down to its use of music. Allam remembers Churchill becoming very interested in using contemporary songs, rather than period material, as a complement to the action. Indeed, music featured in several of the plays that followed, from the sweet swing of the benign opening song in Cloud Nine to the two gloriously sweary, rousing songs that closed each act of her big 1987 hit Serious Money.

Churchill had taken the subject of the rise of aggressive City traders, the bear pit of the futures market and capitalism going wild. Instead of writing (as most politicised playwrights would have done) in the expected tone of angry disapproval, she wrote a deliciously vicious dissection that was a romp in, of all things, formal rhyming verse. This was 30 years before Mike Bartlett played a similar game in King Charles III. With a cast including Linda Bassett, Lesley Manville, Alfred Molina, Meera Syal and Danny Webb, who took over from Gary Oldman, it was the first of her plays to transfer to the West End, despite British Telecom refusing to furnish them with telephones on the grounds that “this is a production with which no public company would wish to be associated”.

Vinegar Tom led to a further workshop with Monstrous Regiment inspired by Judy Chicago’s now legendary feminist artwork, The Dinner Party. A landmark work of visual art, it was a triangular installation of individual ceramic place settings for 39 women from history from Sappho and Hildegard of Bingen to Georgia O’Keeffe.

The company’s co-founder Gillian Hanna remembers that they’d all watched a documentary about it and thought it would be exciting to develop a play that involved a number of different women from history all coinciding. The characters they investigated included the well-named Elizabethan author Jane Anger and Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. In the end, Churchill couldn’t make the idea work dramatically so the project was abandoned – only for it to resurface with Stafford-Clark and Joint Stock, and a wholly new cast of historical characters as Top Girls, which remains her most famous play.

Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina in Serious Money, Royal Court. Photo: John Haynes
Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina in Serious Money, Royal Court. Photo: John Haynes

Reflecting on the workshop experience, Churchill said in 1997: “It was very exhilarating, because it was a completely different way of working.” Asked if giving up sole authority wasn’t a bit scary, she blinked and then grinned. “Yes, a little bit. But there’s a misconception sometimes that the actual writing process becomes collaborative. Some companies create wholly devised plays, but I’ve never gone that far into collaboration. Once you’ve given up being ‘the garret artist’ and moved towards one kind of power-sharing, then all sorts of other areas become fascinating. Of course, I haven’t entirely relinquished the garret, but once you’ve jumped into the water and discovered that you can swim then you are free to go on swimming or stay home.”

Nick Payne playwright

Nick Payne. Photo: Helen Murray
Nick Payne. Photo: Helen Murray

When you first think of making a living as a playwright, you have an urge to study Caryl Churchill. Not academically, but I read and reread her plays to figure out how she does it. And I couldn’t. Normally you read a playwright’s work and you see how they’ve structured it, the mechanics of it, and you can learn from that. But with her it’s invisible, I’m not quite sure how she does it.

Her plays are dazzling. They are so formally amazing, but what’s often overlooked is she’s an amazing writer of dialogue. There is acute line-by-line writing as well as this ridiculous control of form, which is completely tied to the content.

She’s so restless. With Love and Information, I thought: ‘How is someone who is not of a generation that grew up with the internet able to write about it and find a form that works?’ All her plays get to the bottom of an issue in a way no one else can.

I was trying to think of another writer who has sustained a career solely in theatre. I wonder whether there’s something in the fact she’s pursued one medium for her entire career that she just fucking understands it.

She strives to do away with naturalism, and recently her plays have not been tied to an era, so they will be done again and again. They achieve relevancy through abstraction and metaphor – rather than literally talking about now, which can be painful and feel antique. Her plays never have that feeling, which is amazing.

Caryl Churchill: Evolving a distinctive style

Since the 1990s and her return (mostly) to being a “garret artist”, Churchill’s plays have grown ever more starkly distinctive. She had begun her career at the very end of the 1950s, writing radio plays, partly for practical reasons: there was a market for them, and she was having children. She told the Guardian in 1972: “Radio is good because it makes you precise. Then there’s the freedom. You can do almost anything in a radio play.” Throughout her career, she has consistently led the way in finding ways to make that equally true of theatre.

It would be easy to categorise Churchill’s writing in terms of the breadth of subject matter – always political, never impersonal – but that would miss the point. Her constant appetite for reinvention of form has marked her out.

And this is not a case of form for form’s sake, says Featherstone: “Every play she writes, she reinvents something about theatre. I get the strong impression that she can’t or doesn’t write a play unless the play that she is ready to write is going to reinvent in some way… and is going to teach her something about the thing that she knows about.”

Dominic Cooke, Featherstone’s predecessor at the Court, who has directed several of her sharp short plays, points to a highly creative restlessness in her. “She doesn’t want to write anything unless she’s exploring the only possible form for the idea. What I’ve gleaned is that she doesn’t start writing until she knows what that appropriate form is. Also, I think she gets bored quite easily so she doesn’t like repeating herself.”

Macdonald agrees, arguing that, occasionally, Churchill doesn’t actually like what much of theatre is doing. “She’s writing something that appears to blow up theatre because she’s irritated by it. That’s true of Far Away and Blue Heart. She’s in an argument with the form itself in the way that radical artists are. She’s saying: ‘Look at how boring this is. Let’s do something different. Let’s have a long parade of people in hats,’ as in Far Away or ‘Let’s start a scene again and again every three minutes,’ as in Blue Heart.” The latter idea of constant restarting and restating was a direct influence on Nick Payne’s play Constellations, which beat her Love and Information to best play at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards in 2012.

A cross between the funniest sketch show in town and theatre’s most audacious enquiry into the nature of how we perceive and navigate our way through the world, Love and Information was one of her boldest plays yet. Written in seven sections plus a coda, the script has no individual characters, merely lines of dialogue each precede by a dash. Directors can choose which cast members play which lines and, within each section, can choose in which order to play the scenes. What becomes blisteringly evident, when not laughing or being startled into thought, is Churchill’s mastery of compact dialogue. Even the most apparently inconsequential phrase is nothing of the sort.

More than almost any other playwright, her work embodies both halves of the job title. She’s playful and the work is particularly finely wrought. “The line writing is so incredibly condensed and precise,” Cooke says. “It’s so filled with imagery. Love and Information has lines unattributed to individual characters but the lines alone instantly suggest individual stories and character. It’s simply remarkable.”

The company of Love and Information. Photo: The Other Richard
The company of Love and Information. Photo: The Other Richard

All of this would be impressive from a writer at any age, but what makes the play’s achievement even more remarkable is that it was from a writer at 74, an age when most artists are either winding down or, at best, producing “autumnal works”. It is no exaggeration to place her alongside Beethoven, Verdi and Picasso, three other iconoclastic artists with long careers whose late work is easily as inventive as the works that made them famous. Better still, it wasn’t any kind of final flash. Three years later, her agent rang Featherstone and told her that Churchill had written a new play for her consideration. That play was Escaped Alone.

It became the first Royal Court show in years to tour. A startlingly original piece, it takes a sunny afternoon garden chat between four women in their 70s and hurls it against grimly comic monologues about an apocalyptic not-at-all distant
future – “A kitten became famous” – in which our recognisable world is spiralling out of control. “The cast initially found it hard to learn because so many of their chatty, cheerfully interrupted lines were only half of the sentence,” Macdonald says. “She’s not doing the beginning or the end because she knows she can give you the sense without literally needing to write the whole damn thing out.”

Caryl Churchill: Exploring culture and identity

Though Escaped Alone offers proof of Churchill’s constant need to experiment, she does not see it that way. “Experimentation has always been unconscious. The writing just did what I wanted it to do. I’ve become more conscious of it because people tell me I do it. But it would be naive to pretend that I think I’m writing a traditional play each time.”

Cooke says she never displays her own importance in her work. “There’s absolutely no sense of high seriousness that some of the political playwrights who emerged alongside her had. Some of her work has the potential to reach big audiences. For one thing, she writes good jokes. She’s entertaining.”

The other outstanding quality of her work is its rigour. A Number – a quiet, chilling play of four scenes in which a father meets four of the 20 sons he has cloned – is, by near-universal consent, a formal and emotional masterpiece. Daldry directed the premiere with Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig as the four sons, and Macdonald has directed three further productions: in Germany, in New York with Sam Shepard and Dallas Roberts and on TV with Tom Wilkinson and Rhys Ifans. Other productions have upped the stakes by casting real life fathers-and-sons Timothy and Samuel West, and John and Lex Shrapnel.

It’s a play that Macdonald regards as central to Churchill’s thinking. “She’s very often writing about nature versus nurture, what culture brings to us and what we are essentially. The core of her work from the 1970s onwards is about identity and how we define ourselves. Her interest in science brought a whole new level to that. How we construct who we are is at the philosophical heart of A Number.”

A scene from Top Girls by Caryl Churchill at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester. Photo: Tristram Kenton
A scene from Top Girls by Caryl Churchill at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester. Photo: Tristram Kenton

All her writing – but that play in particular – points to a further strength. Manifestly a feminist, socialist and a consciously political playwright, she is the least didactic. “At the heart of the politics is a sense of morality. Her anger at cruelty in the world, particularly cruelty to children, is central,” Macdonald says.

The depth of the compassion underpinning the politics is evident in the final scene of Top Girls. The two mutually mistrustful sisters, whose fractured relationship is the play’s fault-line, have the showdown of their lives. Dominic Cooke reveres it. “To write a relationship between two opposed women who are so fully inhabited, that is so full of pain, and so completely examines and reflects the story of what happened to the country over 20 years, is a simply incredible achievement. Whatever your political sympathies, you understand both positions because they’re talking about a child. It’s one of the best scenes written in the past 70 years.”

Featherstone argues that content is never really radical, but form is. “Content can surprise us, but form disrupts us and makes us feel differently,” she says. And that is Churchill’s ultimate strength. As fine a playwright as she is, she’s also a conceptual artist. Bad conceptual artists offer you only the recipe; great ones do that but also give you the pleasure of the meal – which is what she does.

Churchill’s plays take you somewhere unexpected and her handling of form and metaphor is so complete that by sheer skill and control of stagecraft, she makes you see and think something from a fresh perspective. She’s not asking you to agree or disagree with a thesis, she’s merely allowing you to see – and feel – something new.

On Caryl Churchill…

Caryl Churchill

Playwright EV Crowe

“I first read Far Away as part of the Royal Court’s Young Writers Programme in a sea of ‘normal’ plays. It got under my skin but I didn’t know why. It felt shockingly intense at a time when I felt deadened with irony and imagined myself unshockable. That’s what I hope to be most influenced by in Caryl Churchill’s work, the intensity of purpose and intensity of connection to the outside world. To have the courage to be that purposeful and to find a mode of expression to deliver the message without flinching.”

National Theatre director Rufus Norris

“From her earliest work, Caryl Churchill’s plays have always been relevant to the world we live in. Her humanity, her politics, her knowledge of history and the nature of power have been matched by her innovation in form and theatricality. The style and scope of her work over the years is astonishingly wide-ranging; she has redefined the purpose of theatre and her influence is immeasurable. Alongside this, she is disarmingly approachable and warm. Since being an assistant director on This Is a Chair in 1997 to producing Light Shining in Buckinghamshire as the first production during my tenure at the NT, I have found her to be open and wise. The great literary tradition of this country is indescribably richer for her presence.”

Theatremaker Maxine Peake

“Being in The Skriker was like performing in a journey, a spell, a dance. Caryl has access to the deep recesses of humanity most of us can only imagine – her plays are poetic, visceral and collaborative and push the form of theatre, redefining what a play can be. She writes astonishing roles. I feel incredibly lucky to have had the chance to explore such an extraordinary character.”

Playwright Lucy Kirkwood

Paying tribute to Churchill who received this year’s Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award for Outstanding Contribution

“To anyone working in the theatre today, the outstanding contribution of Caryl Churchill is beyond question. Her invention is ceaseless. Her influence is profound. In her 60-year writing career, she’s changed the dramatic landscape of two centuries. More than any other British playwright, she has evolved our conceptions of what a play is. She’s even changed the way we write them down.”

Actor Roger Allam

“In Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Caryl showed her ability to write in epic dimensions without being epic in scale.”

Academic R Darren Gobert, author of The Theatre of Caryl Churchill

“Caryl Churchill is always so conceptually interesting but a handful of other playwrights manage that. However, the purity of their conceits is not matched by the beauty of the dialogue. Joan’s final monologue in Far Away is one of my favourite pieces of writing by anyone. The language is so beautiful. The idea that you can write amazing dialogue for so conceptually pure an idea: there’s no one else who can do that. That’s why I love her.”

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