Caryl Churchill’s new play is one of fragments. The play is split into seven segments, each of which is, in turn, divided into a series of brief scenes, some barely more than a minute in length. There are 57 of these in total and the text allows for them to be reordered, broken up and pieced back together like Lego. Between each scene the shutters come down, there is a short period of blackout and a burst of noise: a snatch of the theme from The Simpsons or a baby’s gurgle.
The characters, who are never named and none of whom recur, are played by a cast of sixteen. The overall effect is one of looking through a series of windows and glimpsing pieces of people’s lives which together form a human constellation. Some scenes have the elegance of a haiku, others are altogether more toothsome. There’s a fractal quality to the writing; there are patterns and echoes, thematic ripples. The telling of secrets is one such refrain, but memory – its fragility, its capacity to betray or delight – is perhaps the most prevalent. A family watch a wedding video and marvel at the way their recollection of the day is entangled with the images on the screen, a woman suddenly finds herself remembering her late father, a young man recalls exactly what he had for lunch on a particular day in 1998. Each of these iterations acts as a fresh lens, allowing for a further layering of information.
Churchill also explores the difficulty of condensing and conveying the complexity of human experience, of trying to explain a concepts such as pain or fear, of reducing an individual to a census entry, breaking a person down into data. The bleaching nature of depression is also a recurring motif and she includes a number of scenes in which characters seem unable to respond to or engage with the world around them.
While the play itself contains no specifics, with Churchill’s words standing alone in a way that is almost abstract, James Macdonald’s energetic production supplies much in the way of context, anchoring each episode in a particular place and creating a kind of social kaleidoscope in the process. Despite the brevity of each segment, there’s a teasing sense of there being something beyond and between the scenes, a feeling of cohesiveness.
Though Miriam Buether’s white cube of a set is a clinical and rather chilly space – one which makes the people on stage look like test subjects in a lab or virtual beings – Macdonald draws out the play’s wit and warmth. The large cast work incredibly well together, frequently managing to suggest much in a very short time. The technical precision that must be necessary to make the scene-to-scene transitions seem so seamless is staggering, though the real joy of this is its invisibility. There are moments when the play – with its reluctance to linger for longer than a few minutes on any one scene – feels a bit fidgety, but the overall effect is hypnotic.
Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, London, September 6-October 13
- Caryl Churchill
- James Macdonald
- Royal Court
- Cast includes
- Nikki Amuka-Bird, Linda Bassett, Scarlett Brookes, Amanda Drew, Laura Elphinstone, Susan Engel, John Heffernan, Justin Salinger, Amit Shah, Rhashan Stone
- Running time
- 1hr 40mins