The Austrian writer Peter Handke, perennially mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote a play in 1966, with no characters or plot, which is usually translated into English as Offending the Audience. Caryl Churchill, whose own output might be worth consideration by the Swedish Academy, makes increasing use of similar anti-theatre tactics, such as scripting unattributed dialogue, to be distributed and delivered as cast and directors think fit. She is also capable of offending theatregoers – her Seven Jewish Children: a Play for Gaza was described by one critic as a “blood libel” against Israel – but the overall tone of her theatrical experiments has been less provocative than Handke’s, teasing the audience, perhaps, or testing them.
The script of Churchill’s last play, Love and Information (2012), consisted of more than 50 brief conversations between anonymous speakers in unspecific locations, from which the cast and crew were invited to fashion a tapestry of playlets. She is slightly more prescriptive for the first of the three parts of her new short play, Here We Go, locating the action at “a party after a funeral”, but the scene consists of nameless phrases, to be spoken, she advises, by “not fewer than three” but “not more than eight” actors. The director, Dominic Cooke, opts for the maximum permitted octet in the National’s world premiere. They speak fragments of memorial reminiscence: “And is the third wife here are they all”, “In the red hat”, “Isn’t that the daughter”, “No the big red”. Between this chat, each actor is instructed to attach to his or her character one of ten speeches that flash forward to a manner of death, including: “I die five years later, stabbed by an intruder.”
This memento mori device recalls the images of skulls and snuffed candles that haunt vanitas portraits, and Churchill’s play becomes a triptych on the theme of mortality. In the middle, the 82-year-old actor Patrick Godfrey stands naked from the waist up and delivers a rapid soliloquy that seems to describe the first posthumous moments of an old man who encounters phenomena described in theology (hell-fire), science (recycling of atoms) and mythology both classical (three-headed dog) and popular (bright tunnels of light).
As we next find the same man sitting in pyjamas on the side of a bed, it is possible that this speech is not a vision of an afterlife, but the demented daydreams or nightmare of a man dying from Alzheimer’s disease. Even by Churchill’s recent standards, this section sets an extreme test for the audience, presenting as if on a live slow-motion loop a carer repetitively dressing and undressing the geriatric. The theatre warned in advance that it wasn’t sure of the production’s running time, estimating 30 to 45 minutes, which was presumably because of the flexibility of this section, which, the playwright advises in a stage direction, continues “for as long as the scene lasts”. Such interpretive largesse makes it almost inevitable that there will be a German production in which the actors go through the motions for a week or so.
At the National, the old man shuffles in and out of his jim-jams for a mere 15 of the total 45 minutes. After the third reprise, you realise that the sequence could go on for ever, though with the dark twist that we simultaneously know this situation to be finite. The dramatist traps the audience into desperately wanting the lights to go out, which, while reducing the likelihood of a West End transfer, is a remarkable fusion of theme and content. Feeling as if it were staring the audience down, the scene is a terrifyingly unconsoling meditation on the end of life, as if Ingmar Bergman had turned Larkin’s “Aubade” and “The Old Fools” into a silent movie.
As has come to be expected from late Churchill, Here We Go has a beautiful, quasi-musical structure, its three scenes retreating from dialogue through monologue to silence. As a committed Churchillian, I found the play rewardingly sharp and shocking, though its shortness may reduce ticket sales and induce regrets from some who do buy them.
Even though the National’s usual lowest price of £15 for tickets applies to all seats for Here We Go, this reduction still puts the performance’s entertainment at 33 pence a minute, which is a steeper ratio than even the £50 top-price tickets for the NT’s productions of Jane Eyre or Waste, which are running in repertory along with Here We Go. But if the trade-off is between length and the level of intelligence and originality offered, then Here We Go is a real deal.
Here We Go is at the National Theatre until 19 December
This article appears in the 09 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires