Theater archives

Play and Anti-Play


Caryl Churchill has always had an ability to surprise, not just the critics and the audience, but herself and her collaborators as well,” says director Max Stafford-Clark. “She gives challenges to a director that are sometimes alarming.”

Over the past 20 years, Stafford-Clark has staged six world premieres of the English playwright’s work, including Cloud Nine, Top Girls, and Serious Money— all past Obie winners for best play— and now her latest, Blue Heart, which begins a three-week engagement January 29 at BAM’s Majestic Theater.

Churchill’s previous two plays— Mad Forest, inspired by a visit to Romania after the fall of Ceaus¸escu, and The Skriker, a mind-boggling venture into the netherworld of fairies and goblins— varied radically in form, style, and content. With Blue Heart, the playwright, who turned 60 last year, once again proves she’s one of the most adventurous of contemporary writers.

The new work is a pair of subtly linked one-act plays about family relationships— real and invented. In the first, Heart’s Desire, a family awaits the return of a daughter who’s been in Australia for 17 years, and in the second, Blue Kettle, a man works a scam on several elderly women, persuading them that he’s the son they put up for adoption 40 years earlier. Churchill plays with theatrical structure in the former and with language in the latter, teasing the audience sometimes to the limits of its patience. Going beyond stylistic innovation, however, Blue Heart also delivers unexpected and rewarding dividends.

If the work itself is a surprise, it’s certainly not out of character. “Caryl has always had an interest in theatricality and structure,” observes Stafford-Clark. He notes that an Ionesco-like vein of absurdism sometimes runs through Churchill’s work. In Heart’s Desire she stops and starts the action several times over, occasionally going back to the beginning and then fast-
forwarding to pick up the scene midway, but each time continuing in a different direction. “The play itself becomes a character, a naughty play that doesn’t behave,” says the director.

As a key to understanding the form of Heart’s Desire, Stafford-Clark offers the image of a frisky pony galloping around a circuit. “It comes to a fence and refuses, so it goes back and tries another route,” he explains. “Sometimes it thinks, ‘If I run really fast I’ll get over this fence,’ so it goes at double speed and clears it and then hits another fence.” Or, you could imagine a writer working on draft after draft, discarding one version and starting on another. Each time the recalcitrant play starts up, however, it adds to a series of what-if scenarios, so that, in a little over half an hour, a complex and disturbing portrait of a damaged family is gradually revealed. “It would have taken Ibsen three hours to do the same thing,” Stafford-Clark claims.

A pioneer in the use of overlapping dialogue in Top Girls, Churchill has also been fascinated with the use of language; to capture the vibrant slang of London’s financial world, for instance, she wrote Serious Money entirely in rhyming couplets. In Blue Kettle, the second play in the double bill, Churchill introduces what Stafford-Clark refers to as a “language virus.” At first imperceptibly, and then with alarming regularity, the characters substitute “blue” and “kettle” for the words they really mean to say. Finally, the two words— including their fragmented syllables “bl,” “k,” and “t”— invade the dialogue completely. By the time the play reaches its emotionally powerful climax, it has deteriorated to a point where the dialogue is unintelligible. Stafford-Clark suggests a parallel between the breakdown of the language and the protagonist’s own breakdown.

According to Stafford-Clark, Churchill described the two one-acts of Blue Heart as “anti-plays”— each carries the seed of its destruction within it. He speculates that the plays may come from a certain bitterness and anger about the theater. “If you have a political dialectic that says you can change people through plays— now this is me talking, not Caryl— and you get a Blair government that seems bland and not the left-wing government you’ve been promised for so long, then you get a kind of despair.”

But the director also recalls Churchill’s reaction after the play’s premiere at the 1997 Edinburgh Festival: “We were on the train back to London and it was this lovely, sunny September morning; we were having breakfast and reading the reviews— which were very good— and she was happy. She said to me, tongue-in-cheek, ‘Well, of course, it’s an unsuccessful anti-play. If I’d really wanted it to be successful, I’d have gone on for another two scenes in Blue Kettle. That would have really driven the audience out.’ ” How typically Churchill— by deliberately setting out to destroy the theater, she winds up celebrating it in such a theatrically imaginative manner.