Review - Caryl Churchill's Far Away at the Donmar Warehouse
They say that short is sweet, but it isn't necessarily so. As ever, it is Caryl Churchill - theatre's greatest disruptor - that breaks that rule, with this tense, brooding and brilliantly incisive theatrical short that packs more into 40 minutes than most playwrights achieve in two or three hours. Interestingly, the Donmar Warehouse is duly treating it as a main course, not an appetiser, with tickets at their usual scale of prices, from £10 to £40, so for some in the audience it works out at a pound a minute.
The play plunges into unease almost immediately, as a young girl called Joan tells her aunt Harper whom she is staying with in the countryside of screams she's heard in the night. It's 2am, and she's ventured out to find out where they come from. Her aunt tries to reassure her; but the witness of her own eyes tells something else, as she reports the sights of children being beaten, lorries and the spilling of blood.
This dystopian view of the future was originally premiered at the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs in 2000 in a production directed by Stephen Daldry that subsequently transferred to the West End's Albert Theatre (now the Noel Coward). In his original review for The Guardian, Michael Billington hits the nail on the head when he describes that opening scene thus: "Imagine The Secret Garden rewritten by Pinter and you get some idea of the power of this first scene. It has much to do with the young girl's remorseless interrogation; also with the fear that children, as well as being victims of violence, are corrupted by implication in it."
By the second scene, young Joan has now grown up and is working as a milliner, decorating outlandish hats for some kind of fashion parade. She bonds with a co-worker Todd, who is holding out for better pay. In a coup d'theatre that I won't spoil by revealing, we see some of the hats they've created (which are in fact made by students of the London College of Fashion's MA costume design for performance course).
From here the action proceeds to the third act of genuine and accelerating terror, in which the world has slipped into chaos and even the animals are implicated in taking sides.
Lyndsey Turner, a Donmar regular (especially of plays by Brian Friel) has previously proved her credentials with Churchill at the National with productions of Top Girls and Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, directs with a masterly intensity; every beat is meticulously measured. It is underscored by a soundtrack of ominous noises from Christopher Shutt, and Lizzie Clachan's set is dominated by a box that rises and descends to reveal different scenes beneath it. The adult cast of Jessica Hynes, Aisling Lotus and Simon Manyondo register a palpable unease; on press night, child actor Sophia Ally was remarkably assured and inquisitive as young Joan.
It's an amazing, disturbing play; not easy to enjoy, but worth the effort.
Photo credit: Johan Persson