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A few months ago I was at the theatre when a slim, quiet woman in her seventies slid past me into her seat. Her entrance went unnoticed — yet this was one of Britain’s foremost living playwrights: Caryl Churchill.
Churchill is one of those rare beings: an artist who combines immense distinction with an extremely low profile. Throughout her career she has shunned the limelight. She doesn’t give interviews and can walk across a theatre foyer unrecognised. It is an approach that has perhaps cost her in terms of recognition: despite her standing, she is less of a household name than, say, Tom Stoppard or David Hare.
Even now, with no fewer than five works on the horizon — three major revivals are imminent as well as two new plays — she won’t talk about her work. But for colleagues in the theatre world it is a chance to assess just why she is so important.
“There aren’t many theatre artists whose work gets bolder, more unusual and more provocative as they get older,” says director Dominic Cooke. “But Caryl Churchill does. She just continues to push forward. She’s a rare talent.”
Over the past 40 years Churchill has become — and remains — one of the most original and influential voices in modern theatre. Top Girls (1982), her brilliantly oblique look at women and power, and her blistering 1980s stockbroker satire Serious Money (1987) are contemporary classics. Her audacity as a writer has changed the shape of drama not only on the stage but also on the page (she was the first playwright to use and denote overlapping speech). She combines, says Max Stafford-Clark, who directed the premieres of both Serious Money and Top Girls, a “first-class mind” with “theatrical originality”.
“You never quite know, if she sends you a play, what it is going to contain,” he adds. “Sometimes I thought, ‘I have no idea how to set about this.’ They bring out the best in you.”
Over the next few months British theatre audiences can trace Churchill’s evolution for themselves. The National Theatre is about to stage her 1976 work Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, an epic collage of scenes about radical 17th-century political movements. Manchester International Festival will revive 1994’s dystopian fable The Skriker, with Maxine Peake taking on the challenge of playing a shape-shifting spirit from the Underworld. In July father and son John and Lex Shrapnel bring A Number, Churchill’s chilling 2002 two-hander about cloning to London’s Young Vic.
And, at 76, she is still moving forward. There is a new full-length Churchill play in the pipeline for the Royal Court Theatre, while in December Cooke will direct another new work, Here We Go, at the National — about which he is tight-lipped except to say that is “startling in the way it uses very fresh forms”.
So why is she so reticent about what she does? It’s not that she is aloof, says playwright Mark Ravenhill, but that she hates analysing her work. “She feels uncomfortable talking about the work,” he says. “And she’s not comfortable in the traditional role of the public figure in the way that David Hare and Alan Bennett might be.”
What makes her even more elusive is that it is hard to define just what a Caryl Churchill play is. Her work ranges from epic, Brechtian historical dramas to the surreal, disintegrating “anti-plays” in double bill Blue Heart (1997). But it is this very versatility that marks her out as an original voice.
“The really unusual thing about Caryl is that she doesn’t write a play unless she has found a completely original form that expresses the idea,” says Cooke. “She is like a contemporary artist working in theatre.”
Michael Longhurst, who is directing A Number, agrees: “Her form is different for every single play. She has set a benchmark for new British writing. She’s a trailblazer.”
Churchill’s constant reinvention of theatrical form means she can make us see issues in a completely unexpected way: sometimes funny, or peculiarly disturbing. The opening of Top Girls criticises hyper-competitive individualism through a madly anachronistic dinner party at which historical female figures hold forth, ignoring one another. Her surreal 2000 fable Far Away expresses the contradictions of a divided world in a silent, upsetting parade of prisoners wearing designer hats.
Such images work better on the stage than on the page, and that is the point. Churchill explores the possibilities of stage, and trusts actors and directors to meet the challenges she throws down. This can be daunting. Maxine Peake, about to tackle the lead character in The Skriker — a mythical being who metamorphoses into multiple different forms — admits that her first thought on reading the play was, “I can’t do this.”
“[The opening speech] seems like gobbledegook,” she says. “But once you crack it you realise it’s not. Everything means something and it’s very strategically placed . . . There are different ways of acting. Often you create a back story — but this character will come more from a physical impulse rather than a cerebral one. You’ve just got to be fearless.”
A Number likewise celebrates the skill of the performer. In this deceptively simple drama, one actor plays a father, while the other plays all three of his cloned sons. Churchill trusts a skilled actor to be able to define the tiny differences between the three identical men and so open up the play’s searching questions about identity. John Shrapnel, playing the father at the Young Vic, says that Churchill’s dialogue, like Pinter’s, is precision-built: “It’s like a musical score. It’s very, very careful.”
Churchill’s confidence in actors may stem in part from her early years with Stafford-Clark’s Joint Stock company, where she would workshop ideas with the cast before writing. And though she retires behind her work in public, in the theatre world she is renowned for her support of new writing and held in great affection and respect.
“She can be quite impish,” says Ravenhill. “And she’s a very self-effacing, quiet person. But scratch at that and there’s great steel there. She has a strong set of ethical, political and moral values.”
He adds: “There are experiences in there that could only be written by a woman. There is a consistent strand . . . about what it means to conceive, to carry a child, to give birth to a child, to lose a child, to parent a child, to be a grandparent to a child. There’s a danger, when you talk about it, of pigeonholing her: I think it’s much stronger than that. She is bringing something of the female experience of life, of the world, of body, right to the centre of the stage.”
Not everything succeeds: occasionally her work can be bewilderingly opaque. And her political engagement has attracted controversy: when Seven Jewish Children was staged in 2009, some critics accused it of anti-Semitism: a charge that both she and Cooke, its director, strongly refuted.
But her ability to articulate political and ethical issues in a uniquely theatrical way means that her plays don’t date. Leo Bill, appearing in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, notes that although it was written four decades ago, the play feels freshly topical. Peake, meanwhile, has found the raw fear of environmental catastrophe expressed in The Skriker disturbingly prescient: “Doing it now feels more potent than ever.”
Playwright April De Angelis confirms her lasting influence on contemporary drama. “She’s an encouragement to all writers to be more adventurous,” she says. “Many writers have their time, their decade when their voice matches the concerns of the Zeitgeist. She’s not like that. She’s never stood still.”
‘Light Shining in Buckinghamshire’, National Theatre, London, April 15-June 22, nationaltheatre.org.uk; ‘The Skriker’, Manchester International Festival, July 1-18, mif.co.uk; ‘A Number’, Young Vic, London, July 4-August 8, youngvic.org
Photographs: Jonty Wilde; John Haynes; Marc Brenner; Richard Budd