Iconic playwright Caryl Churchill’s latest offering is a mere 20 minutes, which prompts me to take my seat in the Royal Court Theatre and ask myself: what’s going to happen? Turns out with What If If Only, that’s a bit of a loaded question.
“Loaded” in the sense that the play explores multiple parallel futures, conditionals, hypotheticals and ‘happenings’ in such a short timeframe. Ever provocative in terms of ideas, staging and form, Churchill’s mischief is easily adopted by director James Macdonald. The first minute or so, for example, is spent watching a man known only as ‘Someone’ (John Heffernan) sitting at a desk in Miriam Buether’s boxed set, doing nothing particularly of note. A lot of What If If Only’s appearance is surprisingly minimalistic, though one suspects that’s rather deliberate. The grandiose and the extensive is in the writing, where audience members must think outside the box – rather literally too, as it rises and falls on the stage.
It took my second outing to a Churchill production (Far Away at the Donmar) to appreciate that the vagueness of the playwright’s work is intentional – one must extract from the abstract. Unfortunately in this instance, Heffernan’s poor projection in the introduction does not help matters on that front, and so it falls to Call The Midwife star Linda Bassett to deliver what is an astonishingly energetic performance. She plays Future, Futures and Present – three roles which aren’t hard to wrap your head around at all.
She enters the stage after the distressed Someone, who has experienced the loss of someone close to him, despairs at how much he misses them. This is A Christmas Carol done Churchill: it’s not the fantastical entity who must do the work for the protagonist and unlock some buried emotion or understanding; they have to do it themselves. In What If If Only, Someone has to choose between an array of parallel futures to become the Present, and he has to make it happen. But how do we make something happen, and make it tangible, in the now? That question, and all the exhaustive, existential baggage which it carries, is what I think lies at the heart of this short production.
Similar to Someone having to do the work to make something happen, requiring the audience to do the work may not be to everyone’s taste – and to some, may even seem spiteful given the running time – but if you can chip in, at most, a tenner and indulge in its provocation, then it’s worth every second of your time.
What If If Only is now playing at the Royal Court Theatre until 23 October.
Production Images: Johan Persson.