It comes at you suddenly, doesn’t it: death that is, though the character could easily be describing Caryl Churchill’s new play. In a nifty forty five minutes Here We Go goes to the afterlife and back again. The succinctness of the play, though, is not for want of material; rather, it constitutes a critique of the way in which we hurry unthinkingly through our short lives, and where death, as a part of everyday discourse – just take a look at the news at the moment – is treated with flippancy. Forty minutes: in, out, ‘what time does the bar close?’, done.
But someone’s died: an elderly man, played by Patrick Godfrey, killed by a Tube train, or possibly by old age (nothing is certain). In the play’s standout scene, he delivers a monologue from beyond the grave, standing haggard and half-naked in an unsettling, but not altogether humourless, recreation of Munch’s Scream. He tries to relate what he sees in front of him.
Churchill’s play, though, has a tendency to mystify rather than elucidate and we struggle to get a handle: is he in hell? heaven? purgatory? All of the above? Churchill’s afterlife is a cocktail of ancient myth and modern religion: the Pearly gates stand alongside the Egyptian and the Nordic Gods, who ‘sit round the table drunk’.
It’s at the man’s funeral party where his story becomes clearer. Here, nuggets of information are sieved from an endless stream of small talk: he was a thrice married, red flag-waving man accompanied into old age by his ginger cat. Perhaps more than any other playwright, Churchill has an ear for the natural rhythms that typify everyday language: the ums and ers of the party guests, the euphemisms and false-starts, the half-finished sentences that trail away into mournful silence. The guests’ chatter is more platitude than pith, making the ceremony feel a mere matter of routine – not least when (we’ve all been there) they start comparing this funeral to others they’ve been to.
Eleanor Matsuura, Joshua James and Susan Engel (death’s ‘like stepping on a rake’) stand out, but Churchill’s focus is on the bigger picture: a tapestry of bored guests, meandering in and out of the doors of Vicki Mortimer’s expressionless set.
The play’s title – Here We Go – is the reddest of red herrings; Churchill’s characters, like their conversation, go nowhere but in circles. And it’s not as if Godfrey’s up to much either. In the third scene, before his death, he changes clothes and hobbles with painful difficulty from his bed to his armchair, helped by his carer. The scene repeats itself like a broken record – and not a word is uttered for, according to Churchill’s script, ‘as long as the scene lasts’. It ends up feeling like a very, very long time.
In fact, the silence and repetition are protracted to the point of exasperation, interrupted only (at least on the night I went) by the noise of seats being abandoned. Dressed and undressed, dressed and undressed; our compassion slides and our impatience grows as the play eludes a conclusion. Let’s be frank, though: the conclusion for this sick and elderly man is, rather inevitably, death. So his continued act of living – and it’s a monotonous life at best – oh-so selfishly prevents the house lights from going up. The play would be over a lot quicker if he just gave up the ghost. Churchill thus implicates us in the death of the old man. The offence: our own impatience.
Fifteen minutes later and we file out. Someone’s died, there’s blood on our hands – but at least we don’t miss the next Tube. And what was it that supposedly killed him again?