This is a lean, whip-smart play, about hope and community, private anguish, and terrible rage.
Margaret Mills, Marta Kaczmarek and Caroline Lee in Escaped Alone. Image: Jodie Hutchinson.
Caryl Churchill, it is often remarked, invented a new theatrical language. The prolific British playwright, now in her 80s, delivered Escaped Alone in 2016, and this Red Stitch production marks its Australian premiere. As with new languages, at first pass, translating Churchill’s drama can feel like a hill-start in a manual car. Overheard in the foyer after the play was a young woman asking her companion: ‘Am I stupid? I liked it! But I don’t think I got it.’ Churchill demands a level of critical engagement from her audience but leavens it with humour, earthy warmth, and a bracing lack of pretension. The result is, in this case, a thoroughly worthwhile, fiendishly resonant hour of must-see theatre.
Accomplished director Jenny Kemp braids Churchill’s three strands of dramatic discourse to sharp, tricameral effect: the familiar chatter of three elderly neighbours enjoying a sunny afternoon is joined by benign interloper Mrs Jarrett (played by the superb Julie Forsyth); the turns of the women’s inner lives and difficult pasts are revealed in monologue; and all is punctuated by Mrs Jarrett’s narration which relates the details of a surreal and bewitching apocalypse.
The audience remains in the dark as to when, or if, this ‘apocalypse’ is happening, and so lurks in a pervasive sense of domestic and existential menace. The stark relief is like a dream, trapped in the every-place and no place. Dann Barber’s neat set has the actors atop AstroTurf on lawn chairs, with a subterranean cutaway to a stratosphere filled with a bank of lights, gesturing toward the precarity of the mundane and the vulnerability of surfaces.
Vi (Margaret Mills) and Lena (Marta Kaczmarek), both fine actors, respectively tell their tales of catastrophic domestic violence, and anxiety to the point of reclusiveness. Sally (Caroline Lee) and her compulsive, bleakly comical phobia of cats, serves a fantastic, uncanny, almost Dr Seuss-ish rant (cats on the ceilings, cats in the cupboards, etc.) which brings the play’s flirtation with psychoanalytic animal symbolism (rats, cats, birds) together with a deepening glimpse into a woman’s fear of contagion; she is searching for outside reassurance that will never come.
Churchill marries personal tragedies with touchstones of global crisis; Mrs Jarrett’s bizarrely poetic soliloquies summon sunken cities, infernos, and technological dystopias, whilst the women strive to keep the chat afloat. This is a lean, whip-smart play, about hope and community, private anguish, and terrible rage.
4.5 stars out of 5 ★★★★☆
Presented by Red Stitch Actors Theatre
Written by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Jenny Kemp
2-30 June 2019
Red Stitch Actors Theatre, St Kilda VIC