Caryl Churchill’s modern dystopia Far Away presents a world where the threat of war and terror is anything but far away. Her play creates a fragile society where everything is on ‘our side’ or ‘theirs’, even the butterflies, where Harper, Joan and Todd live in a state of constant – and State-enforced – fear.
In JMK award winner Kate Hewitt’s new production of the play, the exact details of this dangerous, precarious land that loosely resembles a future version of our own are infuriatingly vague. The brief forty five minutes of its run time and Churchill’s meagre script don’t allow for much depth to either the situation or the characters, even though in dystopian drama these are exactly the two things that matter most.
There are moments of brilliance to be found in the fog of uncertainty that surrounds Far Away. After a woolly start in Act One, where young Joan sees her dodgy uncle doing something (we never quite know what) to someone (we never quite know who) for the good of something/someone else (yep, you guessed it, we never quite know that either), the atmosphere of terror in the second act is horrifying. The way Hewitt presents the prisoners on trial – as a wailing chain gang of disembodied hats marching towards their death – is as inspired as it is downright eerie. But the cleverly wrought tension of this scene is shattered with a final scene that is played for laughs rather than poignancy. It’s too hard to take anyone seriously when they’re worried about going to war with the ants, no matter how strong or serious Churchill’s original image of the entire world at war is.
Ariyon Bakare and Samantha Colley give strong performances as the young hat-making lovers trapped in a punitive system. Georgia Lowe’s bare wooden set design with blaring sirens and search lights is effective, if lacking in imagination. But Far Away screams out for more: more time, more context, more focus, more script. Without this, the obscure short snapshots of Churchill’s dystopia feel disjointed and leave us desperately searching for even a scrap of meaning.