A member of the cast at the Orange Tree Theatre told me last night that Caryl Churchill makes no concessions to the audience. This is the essence of Churchill’s drive, her intensity, her playfulness. The exciting thing about Churchill’s plays is that one is constantly confronted with new ways of constructing meaning.
The cast pulls off the difficult trick with volcanic brilliance in the first of two one-act plays that combine together to make up Blue Heart. The first act is called Heart’s Desire. In this act a family waits for the return of a daughter from Australia. You might be thinking of it as the return of a prodigal son.
The domestic scene involves ‘waiting, waiting again, still waiting’, like a rewound tape recording. Differences emerge as the tape is allowed to play on further, further yet and further still. The cast completes this acting challenge with fluid, disjointed grace. We are lulled by it, but also jolted by it. The acting itself becomes the spectacle. They do it again, the same, but different, at speed, like machines, not yet invented machines, and like humans, with all the excitement and intrigue of performance art.
The repetition suggests a lifelong daily ritual lying behind the unique occasion of the daughter’s first return to her parental home. What is contained within the ritual is partly banal, partly symbolic, or perhaps sinister, mundane, ludicrous, funny? Is this play a farce or a tragedy? It’s entirely up to you to decide what it is.
The response from the audience suggests various different interpretations, each valid from one point of view or another. These interpretations, telling us how others see the same thing we see, but see it differently from their own perspective, this adds to the sum of the parts, reminding us that live performance is exactly that: it is alive, alive to audience and cast and time and place. a living thing, not just a script and a set of actors.
So what of Blue Kettle, the second act? An adopted man searches for his biological mother, fooling various women into thinking he is their long-lost son; one once given up for adoption, now restored to them. Is this also a home-coming of sorts? He plays on the notion of the DNA bond between mother and son, perhaps in an attempt to extract money, or perhaps it’s something else entirely, it is hard to tell. Again and again the man encounters a potential mother and the mother falls for his story.
A clever play on words ‘coming home’ links the two acts, except in this second act words are increasingly corroded, becoming just sounds, like a damaged tape recording. The verbal logic is lost. Word-like sounds intrude and progressively dissolve. It is all very uncomfortable. Meaning proceeds in one direction, but sounds go off in another.
After the performance, outside in the lobby, I encounter a group of earnest, young, literature students discussing the meaning of the play. All that my mind registers are disjointed, clicking sounds. Churchill has changed the link between my ear and my brain. Logic is suppressed beneath sound itself. I have to laugh. My DNA has gone haywire on me. What an achievement!
Churchill makes no concessions. The cast is wonderful The result is mind-blowing. A triumph, as long as you are happy with a play that makes no concessions and stretches the limits of what theatre can do past breaking point.