Caryl Churchill’s Far Away is a short play, but it’s not a small play: it’s global in scope, untethered by time, part fable, part prophecy.
Written at the dawn of the millennium, after the wars in the Balkans, but predating 9/11, it encompasses the atrocities of the 20th century while anticipating horrors to come. It captures the terrifying speed and ease with which we devalue human life and the myriad ways in which fear is used to keep people compliant.
The play consists of three brief scenes. In the opening, Joan, a young girl (capably played on press night by Sophia Ally) sees something she shouldn’t in the garden at night. Her aunt Harper (Jessica Hynes) tries to persuade her she was mistaken, to explain away the blood and the screaming.
Then the play shuttles into the future, where a grown-up Joan (Aisling Loftus) is now working in a factory making extravagant hats. The hats are ridiculous things, comical, sculptural and excessive. She chats with her more experienced colleague Todd (Simon Manyonda) as they glue on feathers and beads. It’s only midway through this scene that we discover the true nature of the parades for which the hats are being constructed. This revelation is executed via a moment of stage magic, a proper shock, a true coup de theatre. The play hangs on this moment. While Joan and Todd have been fretting over pay rates and cronyism, they have been contributing to a death machine.
The final scene leapfrogs into the realms of the absurd. The conversation between Harper and Todd is streaked with surreal imagery. A war is raging. Animals and people are pitted against each other – the cats are siding with the French, while the elephants have gone over to the Dutch – or perhaps the line between them has blurred. It nods to environmental collapse, an irreparably broken world, and – watching it today – contagion, but also the disquieting ease with which we ‘other’ each other.
Churchill’s play interlaces the bucolic, the fantastical and the harrowing, pairing characteristic economy with wild, imaginative flourishes. She makes potent use of juxtaposition and omission.
The cast combine precision of delivery with a natural ease with the material. In the opening scene Hynes achieves a delicate balance between making it appear as if she is protecting the girl while in fact protecting those who committed the appalling acts young Joan has witnessed.
Lizzie Clachan’s set consists of a reflective, metallic cube that descends from above, flickeringly lit by Peter Mumford.
Lyndsey Turner, who previously directed Top Girls and Light Shining in Buckinghamshire at the National Theatre, has a tendency to heap too much stuff on to the frame of Churchill’s plays, and that’s sometimes the case here too, but she also brings out the richness of a play that is dread-filled, disturbing, and, yes, prescient. Far Away, so close.