“You don’t see the window pane?” asks a young boy at the start of Glass, the first of four new plays by Caryl Churchill performed as a quartet at the Royal Court. Viewed as a set, shared themes come to light – in particular humankind’s age-old desire to tell stories. Gods and monsters rear up, either in the concrete form of a man sitting on a fluffy cloud in Kill, or more figuratively in the way characters assign hero or villain status to others with alarming ease.
James MacDonald, who also directed the discombobulating Escaped Alone, Churchill’s last hit at the Court, inserts brief circus-style entertainments between the first three plays. A woman in polka dots performs increasingly difficult juggling sequences, then a solo acrobat balances upside-down on two stocky platforms which visibly shake throughout the routine.
But of the four, which get progressively longer in running time, Glass is by far the most intriguing thanks to how it resists interpretation. Given the 81-year-old dramatist’s previous form with slyly shape-shifting plays, it instinctively seems like the most revealing work precisely because of its apparent obscurity.
It starts with a group of teenagers lolling around. One, called Brother, lightly teases his friend about being unable to see his sister, a girl made of glass. Gradually, the girl becomes clear to him. He notices the semi-fixed cracks in her body from previous breakages and is told she must be swaddled in bubble wrap before leaving the house. We then move to a mantelpiece where the glass girl lives alongside an antique clock, a cheap red dog and an empty vase.
Compared to the subsequent plays, the cast list for Glass contains no big name actors, but it is impeccably, brilliantly performed – even alongside the later plays starring Toby Jones and Deborah Findlay (both, unsurprisingly, excellent). Kwabena Ansah’s droll clock, intoning his relevance despite the invention of smart phones, is perfectly sincere and hilarious, while Louisa Harland’s plastic dog (“Everyone likes me best because I’m cheerful”) is cutesy without being annoying.
Each time Glass offers an opportunity for interpretation – for example the possibility the “glass girl” is a framed photo of a deceased daughter on a display – it reformulates itself into something else. Given its title, a many-sided prism would be an obvious metaphor. Whispered allusions to child abuse pop up, school bullies enter the picture, the glass girl and her brother’s friend fall in love, a tragedy occurs and everything shatters. It’s incredibly, piercingly sad at the end, despite the fact you’re still unsure about exactly what you’ve just witnessed.
In contrast, Kill is more straightforward in its premise and format (or at least as “straightforward” as you’ll ever get with a Churchill play). Tom Mothersdale is perched on a kitsch theatrical cloud as the physical manifestation of all the gods. Below, a small child representing ‘the people’ scrawls frantically with a set of a colouring crayons. Mothersdale excellently delivers a conflated run through of the curses, murders, marriages and conflicts of Greek mythology. He does so in the manner of a Blair-era politician, patiently and clearly explaining educational reform or the reasons to go to war. He details what pleases and angers the gods, but regularly comes back to the ultimate get out of jail free card: “we don’t exist, people make us up.”
Bluebeard’s Friends and Imp also riff on famous tales. The first re-imagines Bluebeard as a modern perpetrator of misogynistic violence, his chattering friends trying to decide how that nice man could turn out “evil”. The second is about two out-of-work and depressed cousins, Jimmy (Toby Jones) and Dot (Deborah Findlay) who vicariously live through their young niece Niamh (Louisa Harland) and a local homeless man, Rob (Tom Mothersdale). Jimmy intermittently relays anecdotes mimicking plots from Shakespeare or Greek mythology, while the folkloric creature of the title is believed by Dot to live in a bottle and grant wishes.
Bluebeard’s Friends has already been lauded as the great #MeToo play we were all waiting for. That conclusion is interesting, because the obvious thing missing from the play is the women themselves, who are represented only by a line of bloodied dresses. Instead, it’s about the botched and often crass attempts by others to construct a narrative, or even make money, from the revelations. In that regard it’s a depressingly accurate summary of the response by some to #MeToo, but surely not the last word required.
The plays repeatedly prove their own point, which is that we prefer telling neat stories to computing anything more complicated. The guess-the-Shakespeare insertions, which draw ostentatious laughs whenever someone in the audience gets the joke, in some respect feel like deliberate red herrings by Churchill to show how easily we get distracted by a recognisable plot, as does the equation of the #MeToo perpetrators with a fairy tale baddie. Instead, it feels like the real answer – if there ever is an answer to a Churchill play – is hiding in plain sight, and is better represented by the tottering acrobat, the breakable ornaments and, most of all, that invisible piece of glass everyone is looking straight through.