A young girl in a white dress walks on stage. Dimly lit with a kind of moonlight, her body reflected by the metal, she walks around the side of a large silver box. In Far Away‘s 40 minute running time, as with any Caryl Churchill play, you spend a lot of time thinking outside of it.
It transpires that the girl, named Joan, has ventured outside and now, like us, she has questions. Her short dialogue with her aunt Harper (the ever-brilliant Jessica Hynes) is noticeably short and punchy, Hynes curiously stone-cold in her delivery. It’s clear that there’s a conflict going on, but Harper doesn’t want Joan to know that. Their conversation not only reflects the naivety and innocence of children in times of war, but demonstrates the gaslighting of a child which somehow feels all too uncomfortable to watch, despite every parent having to do it at some point – although not to excuse the occurrence of genocide, obviously.
The theme of war is made powerfully and hauntingly apparent in a scene involving a line-up of prisoners waiting to be executed, shuffling as music plays. In a very short snapshot, we see the exceptional talents of the creative team on parade. The direction from Lyndsey Turner who gives every character their own reaction in that moment; Lizzie Clachan’s design work; extraordinary hat designs; Christopher Shutt’s unsettling score and Peter Mumford’s blinding lighting design. It all manages to tap into the vivid, fantastical imagination of Churchill with overwhelming creativity in such a short running time. The audience have a similar opportunity too, processing the bizarre scenes of Far Away against the backdrop of conflict. Is Harper and Todd’s (Simon Manyonda) discussion on nature taking sides a commentary on our need to see things in opposing binaries, for example?
Churchill’s 2000 play is, as with all her other work, wacky and abstract. In her experimentation with Churchill’s ambiguity, Turner fails to cement key details. Only upon a second reading of the playtext was it made clear that Aisling Loftus’ humorous, novice hat designer is an older Joan, the series of scenes actually following her over several years. Elsewhere, there is a small metaphor which surfaces from the hat making,
Though make no mistake that tonally, Lyndsey Turner masterfully captures the intrigue and intensity of Churchill, placing us on-edge in a way not too dissimilar from the play’s war-stricken characters. Even in the first few minutes, a shock leaves us alert and invested, while flashing lights and crackling sound effects in between scene changes maintain a sense of urgency and pace for a play which is mostly dialogue and very little action.
When the 40 minutes were up, some audience members were slow to realise it was over and applaud. Of course, this review can only be written from a personal perspective, but some of them may well have felt the same sense of bewilderment and confusion I had when Far Away finished.
Leaving a theatre disorientated with a lot to process may sound off-putting and more of a turn-off than a reason to see Far Away, but as my second experience of Churchill’s work after last year’s Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. at the Royal Court, I may finally be understanding her appeal. Turner’s staging is an unnerving assault on the senses, Churchill’s script – for want of a better word – a mindf**k.
Far Away may sound bizarre or unpleasant, with the contemporary ideas beneath it needing some work to uncover, but once witnessed, it’s easier to understand that that is, essentially, Churchill’s genius – if, like me, you hadn’t realised that already.
Far Away is now playing at the Donmar Warehouse until 28 March.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch Far Away for free in exchange for a review of the performance. I did not receive payment for this review. All opinions stated are honest and my own.