Theater archives

Language Is a Virus


Caryl Churchill’s stagecraft has always been as progressive as her politics. Though heralded by the academy for her delirious deconstructions of gender and power, she has never wavered in her commitment to formalist innovation. Like her closest American counterpart, Maria Irene Fornes, the now (hard to believe) elder stateswoman of British playwriting has dared not to repeat herself. Critics have accused her all along of capriciously changing direction, but their complaint that has less to do with any real break from aesthetic tradition than with their stubborn demand for an artist to produce more of the same.

Her style, in other words, is as dazzlingly experimental as ever. What has changed in recent years is the visibility of her political views. While the transsexual farce of Cloud 9 may have little in common with the Brechtian epic Fen or the Ben Jonson­ian verse comedy Serious Money, the underlying social critique is identifiably the same. Not that Blue Heart, a bill of related one-acts about elderly parents and their adult children, toes a different party line— just that it seems less provoked by the current Third Way policies of Tony Blair than by the serious metaphysical jests of Eugene Ionesco.

Heart’s Desire, the evening’s first play, opens with the line “She’s taking her time.” This could very well describe the playwright, who keeps restarting the action as a London family awaits the return of their daughter from Australia. Not long after the father (Bernard Gallagher) launches into a querulous conversation with the mother (June Watson) and dotty Aunt Maisie (terrifically played by Mary Macleod), who are trying their best to set the table, Haydn begins playing and the actors are forced to begin the scene again from the top.

Each reenactment presents a slightly different blend of the fears, longings, recriminations, and regrets that permanently link parents to their children. The bold strokes of Churchill’s imagination translate this into the fantastical intrusion of gunmen, frolicking children, Nazis, even a colorful ostrich. By toying with such a simple fragment of plot, the playwright manages to imbue the archetypal homecoming situation with a density of tragicomic implication.

Somewhat less engaging, Blue Kettle explores the breakdown of language through the hoax of a 40-year-old man who tricks elderly women into thinking he’s the son they long ago gave up for adoption. As Derek (Pearce Quigley) cons the five guilt-wracked mothers, the linguistic equivalent of the Y2K virus spreads insidiously. The words “blue” and “kettle” crop up with nonsensical regularity, mutating their definitions at will, so that a line like, “The more I keep blue the more I don’t know what’s blue kettle,” passes for intelligible conversation.

Derek’s uncertain objective (“Is it a con trick or a hang-up?” his girlfriend asks) lends a certain poignancy to the proceedings, though there’s no denying that the verbal chaos grows tedious. Churchill’s comedy reveals how quickly things can run amok when our vocabulary becomes infected with our barely understood deceits— a provocative idea, but one that’s more enjoyable in the abstract than in its increasingly dadaist demonstration.

Director Max Stafford-Clark’s production, however, goes a long way toward enhancing the playwright’s minimalist precision and wit. The Out of Joint Company effectively balances the anti-play mania with emotional realism. If the cast fares better in Heart’s Desire, that’s because they get to play discernible characters, not merely types. Churchill can continue to eschew contemporary politics, but she loses ground when her cerebral notions, invigorating though they always are, lack a distinctive human face.