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Here We Go review at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, London – ‘hypnotic, but stultifying’

Patrick Godfey in Here We Go at the Lyttelton, National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton Patrick Godfey in Here We Go at the Lyttelton, National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Caryl Churchill’s newest play takes the form of a triptych, and death as its theme. While a full-length work from the playwright, Escaped Alone, has been announced as part of the Royal Court’s 2016 programme, first we have this dark shard. But while its length is short, its uncompromising approach is likely to divide audiences.

The first scene takes place at the funeral for a man who, by all accounts, has lived a full life. A group of people clad in black stand in a white-walled room and make conversation. There’s no awful roar of grief here, it’s all very polite, the characters speaking in Churchillian rhythms, halting, abrupt. They each break away from talking to one another to describe the events and date of their own deaths before continuing to make small talk. It’s a scene not without humour, albeit a fairly muted sort of humour.

Then things switch. The middle sequence depicts an old man, played by a bearded and bare-chested Patrick Godfrey, who is trapped in some place of darkness, some in-between space just shy of the pearly gates. He muses (semi-)amusingly on the possibility of haunting, reincarnation, some form of continuation. He’s wry and kind of sprightly: in death he is oddly alive, and the way he’s been lit, by Guy Hoare, makes him look like a Caravaggio, somewhat reminiscent of a saint: Jerome, perhaps, without his red hat.

The final sequence is also the longest. In it we see the same man, or at least that’s who we presume him to be, only now he’s frail and feeble, being dressed, carefully but mechanically, by a nurse, played by Hazel Holder, while he teeters on a Zimmer frame. She strips him, removes his trousers, unshoes him, and then slowly, painfully eases him into an armchair. And then she proceeds to go through the same set of actions again. And again. The shirt, the trousers, the shoes, the underwear. It’s Sisyphean, the scene playing out in total silence, stuck in an eternal loop, an awful sort of purgatory.

While Dominic Cooke’s production runs well short of an hour, time takes on a kind of heaviness, each passing minute makes itself felt. In fact the whole thing comes to feel more like a piece of live art as much, if not more so, than a piece of theatre.

As an experience, it somehow manages to be hypnotic but also stultifying, tender but also deadening, as the old man and his carer go through the same silent motions as the lights dim and the triptych folds in on itself.

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A hypnotic, but stultifying journey into purgatory with Caryl Churchill