Caryl Churchill’s latest play centres on four women, all in their seventies, as they sit in a backyard drinking tea and discussing a variety of subjects, from quantum physics to old currency. Anxieties that at first seem comic – an inability to make the trip to Tesco, a fear of cats, mild regret at having committed murder – gradually morph into very real concerns, as the characters speak directly of the worries that have taken over their lives.
This is interrupted by a series of monologues, painting a picture of a dystopian reality that whilst absurdist in feel (sugar developed from monkeys, and eighty percent of meals diverted to television) draws on real concerns relating to capitalism and climate change – flooding, mass starvation, corporate control and social cleansing.
Churchill’s diptych uncovers an obvious disparity between the things we should be worrying about and the things that actually bother us. And yet its purpose doesn’t seem to be to offer a damning criticism of the disengagement of the play’s female and older protagonists (vide more than one of Beckett’s plays…). Instead, Escaped Alone feels like a meditation on fear: how the mere thought of imminent threats (from cats to armageddons) can incapacitate, and what our strategies are for coping with and escaping them.
James Macdonald’s production is slick and assured. The four performers strike a balance between naturalism (the broken, tangential nature of the dialogue is, after all, consistent with how most people actually talk) and a more heightened performance style that suits the mannered dimensions of the script.
My one worry is that this feels like a very literary play. The text is constantly surprising, and puzzling it out is both challenging and enjoyable. I’m sure it will be interpreted in wildly divergent ways by those who see it. In a novel or a poem these would be seen as virtues. To my mind though, theatre is a more democratic medium, and brings with it a greater need for accessibility – especially if its content is political.
I suspect that too many people will find this play wilfully obtuse. Maybe it’s the fault of culture more generally that it infantilises, and fails to demand analytic rigour – and maybe people like Churchill need to be emulated, not criticised, for being so uncompromising. But I still question the efficacy of a work like this – and given the urgency of the issues it appears to address, this seems like a valid objection…