Left - Angela Punch McGregor. Cover - The Hat Parade. Photos Gary Marsh
It’s hard not to see Caryl Churchill’s play, Far Away (written in 2000) as prophetic - coming as it did, the year before 911. It’s a dark and suspenseful modern fable about the ultimate world war and the breakdown of civilization. This is not a play for the occasional theatre goer; the audience has some work to do. There is scant linearity and the dialogue is stylized and laden with irony and absurdity. Without the aid of a program it would be hard to decipher that the girl (played on alternative nights by Katie Dorman and Freya Tingley) in the beginning is playing the young Joan (Catherine Moore), and if this was the case, the understanding of just how long the war has been raging would be lost. But if you let go your desire for more information, along with any presumptions about the ending, you will walk away deeply affected.
The play offers no solutions, reasons, or hopes, and what it does extend is proffered in such a detached manner that you’re left feeling like you’ve just received a severe blow to the stomach by a phantom. There are both Brechtian and Pinteresque techniques at play in the script, requiring the audience to accept that the detachment has purpose, and the rhythm of the cryptic dialogue is almost as important as the sense.
Churchill has written three quite distinct scenes, each with a style of dialogue (if any) and a pace of its own. This is clearly the work of a master script writer; however, the disparity will undoubtedly prove frustrating for some. It is in this cool detachment though, that Churchill infuses the play with such bitter irony. And so we begin to question our own blindness to the brutalities that surround us in the world even now.
This blindness to human and global suffering has crept into Joan’s life. She has grown up to be a milliner in a stark industrial workshop, and it is here that she and her husband to be, Todd (Stuart Halusz), are employed to create fanciful and outlandish hats for “the parade”. Despite whether you enjoy or understand the play as a whole or not, the parade sequence will shake you, and it will stay with you for a long time. Images such as these are not common in the theatrical oeuvre, commonly left for film, and this sequence is both filmic and theatrical, absurd and horrifically familiar, and a credit to both Churchill and the vision of director, John Sheedy.
Bryan Woltjen’s set design is remarkable. It follows the Brechtian principles of detachment and acknowledges both the fabling and futuristic dystopian themes with extraordinary effect. This effect is heightened by Kingsley Reeve’s sound design; a futuristic soundscape of discordant clanging and reverberation that expertly creates much of the play’s disquiet and suspense.
Disquiet comes also from the relationships in the play. In the beginning, a young Joan asks her Aunt Harper (Angela Punch McGregor) about screams that awake her in the night, and as the details unfold Harper must tread a line between maternalism and survival that you find yourself hoping you never have to face. The cast employ a calm simplicity and impressive deftness to Churchill’s language, which is both prosaic and sparse, and volubly absurd. Moore and Halusz are required to portray a deep love for one another while they nimbly turn a blind eye – and contribute to – the atrocities around them, while Angela Punch McGregor’s Aunt Harper churns with a chilling fear and hatred.
In the oblique and absurd final scene in which we discover that the world has fallen in on itself, we are left with the hollow realisation that death will come to all. No-one is spared in this ultimate view of dystopia, not even our lovers, Joan and Todd. The world has come gruesomely unstuck – where people, plants, animals, even the air is at war; ‘Butterflies will cover our faces and choke us to death, the weather will take the side of the Japanese, deer will twist their horns into screaming teenagers, and mallards will commit rape’.* This final scene is so strange that it threatens to undo the power that precedes it. Despite this rupture, this is a vision of dystopia that will stay with you for a long time.
Black Swan Theatre Company presents
By Caryl Churchill
Venue: Playhouse Theatre – 3 Pier St, Perth
Season: 16 – 31 August 2008
Duration: Approx. 50 minutes [no interval]
Tickets: Standard $45 / Concession $40 / Students $20 / Groups 6+: $38
Bookings: BOCS Ticketing (08) 9484 1133 or www.bocsticketing.com.au
*from the Director’s Notes