Caryl Churchill plays don't get done often in Scotland. The last main-stage production of the seventy-four year old iconoclast of British theatre was in 2004, when the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow presented her 1982 look at women in society, Top Girls. That production starred This Life's Daniela Nardini as a hard-nosed career woman who finds herself at the dinner table with some of the most iconic women in history. Before that we'd have to go back to 1997, when Max Stafford Clark's Out of Joint company, with whom Churchill has frequently worked, premiered Blue Heart at at the Traverse as part of the theatre's Edinburgh Festival Fringe season.
It's a welcome surprise then, to find the Citz reviving two of Churchill's shorter works on the main stage in a slot last year occupied by a similarly styled double bill by Samuel Beckett. Far Away and Seagulls may not be quite as elliptical as the two Becketts, but in terms of Churchill's audacious use of form, in the hands of Citizens artistic director Dominic Hill, they should prove equally captivating.
Far Away dates from 2000, and is set in a dystopian futurescape in which the whole world is at war. As a little girl grows into womanhood, the sheer scale of the ongoing annihilation gradually becomes frighteningly clear. Seagulls was written in 1978, and is about what happens to a woman who is able to move things with her mind when that mind starts to fade.
“They're wonderful to work on,” says Hill. “When you've got writing that's so specific and clean, it's really rewarding picking them apart and keeping them exact and sharp. What's great about Far Away is you've got a writer writing predominately within what one thinks of as a naturalistic genre, but which is actually metaphorical and ultimately quite surreal in what it describes, but which also feels very modern. I'm very drawn to writers that go beyond the kitchen-sink. It's highly theatrical, but it's also very political, and deals very much with the world we're living in now.
“Seagulls is just a beautiful piece of writing. It was written twenty-five years ago, but it feels very current. It's about celebrity and talent, and what can happen to talent when it's misused or abused or thrust into the spotlight. While it's still very much a product of its time in terms of gender politics, it also feels very modern. They're both small plays with big themes. There's a moment in Far Away in particular that's very big.”
After her early plays were produced on television and radio in the 1960s, Churchill first came to prominence in the 1970s, when she became resident dramatist at the Royal Court. This led to working with Stafford-Clark and his Joint Stock company and feminist collective, Monstrous Regiment. Churchill's first play to gain wider acclaim was Cloud Nine, a farce about sexual politics which arrived in 1979, a year after Seagulls.
Although fiercely political, her penchant for experimentation meant Churchill's work had never been didactic. Even so, arriving in the midst of Margaret Thatcher’s first term of office as Prime Minister, the parallels in Top Girls were plain to see.
“Just putting eight or nine women onstage at the same time is very unusual in itself,” Daniela Nardini says of appearing in the 2004 revival of the play. “But it was almost like being involved in a song, the way she writes. There were never really any pauses. She'd use a slash as punctuation, so as soon as one person stopped speaking, another one would come in immediately, so it needed orchestrating.
“I find the whole experience fascinating, and I learnt so much about these historical figures, which in itself was a wonderful concept, to have all these great women at a dinner party together.”
Churchill's focus on women hasn't met with universal approval, as Nardini remembers of some of the reactions to Top Girls.
“Sometimes I feel, and I could be wrong, that a lot of the criticisms of the play I detected from audiences came from men. Maybe that's because Top Girls was so dominated by women, or maybe it's because she's a writer who speaks more to women.”
Whatever the answer, Churchill isn't saying. Over a fifty year writing career, which continues today, she has kept firmly off the publicity treadmill. Despite this lack of hype, her influence on the generations of playwrights who grew up in her wake remains unquestionable. Shopping and F****** author Mark Ravenhill recently curated a season of contemporary classic plays for BBC Radio 3 which was spearheaded by Churchill's 1976 piece, Light Shining In Buckinghamshire.
Such acknowledgements of Churchill's status as a pioneer aren't new, as a series of performed readings of Churchill's back-catalogue made clear in 2008 when they were presented at the Royal Court Theatre to in celebration of the Churchill's 70th birthday.
A reading of Far Away was directed by playwright Martin Crimp, whose own experiments with form are best seen in his play, Attempts on Her Life. Crimp's cast included Benedict Cumberbatch, who performed alongside Deborah Findlay and Hattie Morahan. For the Citizens production, Kathryn Howden and Maureen Carr will appear alongside the theatre's current young acting interns, Lucy Hollis and Alasdair Hankinson.
Also involved in the week of readings was Edinburgh-based playwright and director Zinnie Harris, who directed Churchill's 1994 play, The Skriker, about an ancient fairy who follows a pair of teenage mothers in various guises. Given her own experiments with form in plays such as The Wheel, it's no surprise to find that Harris is a fan of Churchill.
“As an artist she is extraordinary,” Harris says. “If you think over the body of her work, no two Caryl Churchill plays are the same. Not even similar. Every Churchill play is an audacious theatrical experiment, challenging form and expectations again and again. But this isn't experimentation for its own sake, she uses this bold theatrical language to uncover and expose often painful truths, and its so skilfully achieved that audiences will go happily wherever she leads them.
“Sometimes the surreal surprises you, sometimes it is there from the opening moment. I love her work for that. She is like a great banner waving to the rest of us, saying don't be lazy, keep pushing, let theatre take you to places we haven't dreamed of yet.”
Far Away (And Seagulls), Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, May 23rd-June 8th
Caryl Churchill – A Literary Life
1938 – Caryl Churchill is born in London
1958-62 – Early plays are produced by Oxford-based student theatre groups.
1962-72 – Several radio plays are produced by the BBC.
1972 – Owners, Churchill's first stage play, is produced in London.
1974-75 – Resident dramatist at the Royal Court, where her play, Objections To Sex and Violence, leads to collaborations with Joint Stock company and Monstrous Regiment.
1978 – Seagulls.
1982 – Top Girls – A look at women in power becomes Churchill's best known play.
1987 – Serious Money – The London stock market is scrutinised in a piece written in rhyming couplets which wins multiple awards.
2000 – Far Away.
2009 – Seven Jewish Children – a play for Gaza – A ten-minute litany written in response to the Israeli military strike in Gaza.
2012 – Love and Information – Churchill's most recent play, which looks at knowledge, technology and the need for feeling sells out the Royal Court before transferring to New York.
The Herald, May 21st 2013