Monday, 18 July 2011

Caryl Churchill

Churchill is an incredibly adventurous talent from the glut of ambitious playwrights known as the modern socialist dramatists. David Hare, David Edgar and Howard Brenton - among others comprised the MSDs. All had a social conscience and an impressive flair for experimental theatre, but Churchill undoubtedly wears the crown for the female vanguard of innovation.

Churchill is considered so because she's lyrical and historically erudite as well as deconstructing. She can mould characters from one act into another, crossing centuries and gender as she does so, (as in Cloud 9 from 1978) and she expects the audience to work hard at keeping up - or fail to grasp the message of the play. Churchill doesn't pander to or placate the lazy audience. You pay your money and then you start work.

Top Girls collates women from different centuries, religions and ethical bases and puts them at the dinner table - with one thing in common: they're all miserable. Written in the early 80s, this is clearly a wafer-thin smokescreen for the dawn of Thatcher's Britain, and is the era in which the second half is set.

The play opened in 1982 at the Royal Court in London, and Churchill was annoyed by a certain female journalist's write-up. The assumption by Julie Burchill that the play discouraged women from working because, frankly, it's all too miserable, annoyed Churchill. She responded by saying the work was a comment on the failure of capitalism to fulfill basic needs in general, gender notwithstanding.

Churchill is known for her non-naturalistic writing, feminist themes and the questioning of personal and political power. Under the loomingly dark and earnest subjects of her plays, there shimmers inventive prose.

In Far Away - a play oft-collaborative director Max Stafford-Clark described as 'an elliptical, political fable, surreal and powerful', the character Joan asserts:

And I know it's not all about excitement. I've done boring jobs. I've worked in abbatoirs stunning pigs and musicians and by the end of the day your back aches and all you can see when you shut your eyes is people hanging upside down by their feet.

Her imagery is powerful and lingers long after a scene change.

Caryl Churchill (born 3 September 1938, London)