Caryl Churchill: Queen of All She SurveysDate: 16 September 2002
Caryl Churchill's latest play, A Number, receives its world premiere at the Royal Court next week. Here, director Dominic Dromgoole pays tribute to one of Britain's most inspired & inventive modern playwrights.
Playful & Unpindownable
The queen of all she surveys. From am-dram halls to student lecture theatres to avant-garde studios to big subsidised houses to the West End, Caryl Churchill is the most loved one. And she deserves every ounce of love thrown in her direction.
Like David Bowie at his peak, but with a lot more class, her greatest talent has been staying well ahead of her fans. She has never ceased to experiment, nor to re-invent herself. Just when her legion of followers might suspect that she would settle into a pattern, she pulls the rug from under their feet.
It would be comfortable to say that Caryl has worked in genres, but it would be underestimating her achievement. Each play is a category smasher, interweaving different genres, different styles and different forms to create entirely new dramatic possibilities. Her particular courage is that every time she starts, she seems to wipe her own slate well and truly clean. Most good writers are able to ignore what others are writing or have written, but very few are strong enough to ignore the allure of their own previous work.
Yet the playfulness of her imagination always manages to steer clear of self-indulgence. It is reined in by her respect for content. Her plays must have a centre of gravity. They must have heart and human content. That provides the ballast, which keeps the balloon of her imagination from disappearing into space. Yet what is most radical about her work, and what makes her a supreme artist, is that she is alert to the new content of human life, and creates structures suitable to that.
Ahead of the Game
Contemporary human sexuality is such an exploded bomb that no traditional story structure could contain it. Cloud Nine is the most dazzling construct within which to hold such peculiar energies. The linear, driven, accelerating plot of the first half proves the ideal vehicle with which to parody the rigidity of our inherited Victorian sexuality. Artificially straight lines, for artificially straight lives. The still, episodic, Chinese construction of the second half - brief stories woven together in a park - is a beautifully relaxed exemplar of a less motivated, more meditative age. Each half complements the other, in a yin-yang way, as well as providing a perfectly apt demonstration of its subject.
Top Girls also famously divides, into three sections. Taking on a subject as mountainous as women in history, it covers a huge expanse of terrain, while remaining elegantly concise. The first section, the dinner party of famous historical and fictional women, is a dazzling intellectual fantasia, a technically brilliant circus act, which flings around heavyweight intellectual content as if it was as light as air. The second section sketches a vivid picture of the modem world, its snakes and ladders for women trying to find a way. The third section is a big, old-fashioned, stichomythic fistfight, a ball of love and rage, a classic scrap where two political philosophies and two sisters rehearse how much they loathe, and how much they need each other. The play is a journey from high style to high naturalistic emotion, changing gears imperceptibly, and laughing at the notion that any one part is more valuable than any other.
The rest of the work is too rich a feast to outline in detail here, but its variety should be respected; from the rampant narrative and broad satire of Serious Money, to the delicate absurdity, raucous hilarity and emotionality of Blue Heart from the fantastical primitivism of The Skriker to the anecdotal reportage of Mad Forest, from the cool modernity of Ice Cream to the historical passion of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. Always bold, always new, always ahead of the game.
Caryl has been lucky in her most regular collaborator, Max Stafford-Clark. His literal-minded quest for clarity has been the ideal foil, and probably the ideal spur, to the wildness of her imagination. You can imagine her handing in each new play, madder than the last and saying, 'Go on then, action that.' Although Max is certainly the ideal midwife of Caryl's work, it is interesting to see other takes on it. Tom Cairns did a full-on operatic production of Cloud Nine at the Old Vic, which brought out an emotional and sensuous resonance in the writing that proved a genuine surprise.
Caryl herself has an extraordinary presence, rather like Jocelyn Herbert, one of the great theatre designers of this century. Both have a profoundly civilising effect on their surroundings. Without any hauteur or arrogance, I've seen both walk into the Bush at its roughest, and I've watched the wildest people, junkies and drunk coppers and all, start to behave imperceptibly better in the atmosphere they create. Although both can be naughty and humourful, a completely un-faked goodness radiates gently from them both, and calms the air around them. It's a natural, liberal aristocracy of the spirit, and the sign of a great artist. She is the queen of all she surveys.
Currently artistic director of the Oxford Stage Company, Dominic Dromgoole Dromgoole previously ran London's Bush Theatre, dedicated to new writing, and has also regularly worked in the West End. The above has been extracted from Dromgoole's The Full Room: An A-Z of Contemporary Playwriting, published in Methuen paperback (priced £8.99). For further information and to order a copy, visit the Methuen website.
A Number receives its world premiere at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs on 26 September 2002 (previews from 23 September) and continues to 16 November. Directed by Stephen Daldry, it stars Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig.