Kind of Blue: Dan Rebellato on Caryl Churchill

Kind of Blue: Dan Rebellato on Caryl Churchill
Dan Rebellato introduces Blue Heart, which the Orange Tree revived in 2015 in a co-production with Tobacco Factory Theatres.

I’m not saying Caryl Churchill can see the future, but she does seem to get glimpses.

There are playwrights who offer brilliant snapshots of the way we are now, some with the longer perspective to help us see where we’ve come from, and rare others who show us where we’re going. Caryl Churchill is of the third group; with each play she gives us a glimpse of our future. Who wrote a better play about the War on Terror than Far Away (written in 2000 before any of those events took place)? What play better captured the chaos of Eastern Europe’s struggles with capitalism in the 1990s and 2000s than Mad Forest (1990)? Obviously she’s not a prophet, but after seeing the apocalyptic bleakness of Escaped Alone at the beginning of this year, let’s just say the miseries of 2016 – Bowie, Brexit, Trump – have not surprised me.

One of the symptoms of this is that her plays can take years to settle securely in our minds. Blue Heart in 1997 is a good example. I don’t think many people understood these two plays at the time – I wonder if even Churchill really understood them. They seemed in a certain way to deliberately resist understanding. They came across both trivial and epic, silly and magnificent, comic and cryptic. They were plays that seemed to self-destruct in the playing. They were serious plays that refused to be taken seriously. And yet, looking back, they pointed a whole new direction for British playwriting. (Think of the endless repetitions and restarts of David Greig’s Mainstream or Nick Payne’s Constellations, the linguistic breakdown of Alistair McDowall’s X or Chris Goode’s Hippo World Guest Book, the games with actors of Secret Theatre’s A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts, the self-destroying text of Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again, the near-unperformability of Simon Stephens’s Carmen Disruption, the metatheatre of Mark Ravenhill’s Candide, the playfulness with theatricality in Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree…)

A key to this ambiguity is, I think, to understand Blue Heart as both love letter and hate mail for the theatre. It’s a love letter because it joyously celebrates the power of storytelling, the dynamism of theatrical representation, the virtuosity of the actor, the mercuriality of language. It tests the actor, director, designer and audience in various mischievous and pleasurable ways. But it’s also hate mail because (so it seems to me at least) it emerges from a deep dissatisfaction with the conventional mechanics of playmaking, of how to write a play.

Blue Heart loves story and it hates story. Both plays give with one hand a rich, evocative story situation full of emotional potential – and take it away with the other. Heart’s Desire shows us a family awaiting the arrival of their daughter from Australia. But if we are
expecting a conventional revelation – maybe she’s terribly wounded? maybe she’s joined a cult? maybe she’s pregnant? maybe she’s a lesbian? – the play immediately confounds that by giving us 27 different versions of these events, some of them horribly  plausible, some of them wonderfully daft. It’s both a giddy proliferation of story and a cruel negation of story. Blue Kettle, meanwhile, is unsettling and puzzling. What is Derek’s reason for seeking out all these alternative mothers? For a while we might think of Derek as a late-twentieth-century Iago, entertaining many motives but remaining a mystery maybe even unto himself. Is he a fraudster? Or a man scarred by loss? Is he seeking
money or love or something else? But even this level of uncertainty is eclipsed as the play starts virally to degrade, random words being displaced by ‘blue’ or ‘kettle’. And then the virus even attacks the virus – like Brian’s mouth eating itself in Heart’s Desire – those viral words themselves disintegrating, the play receding from us, transforming us into theatrical spiritualists straining to hear the messages emanating from a dying play.

Heart’s Desire is a play in search of an ending while Blue Kettle is obsessed with the search for beginnings. But the first play never gets to the end and the latter play never finds its origin. This is surely not coincidental: these plays lack beginnings and endings because they come from a world in which orderly linear narratives with their beginnings, middles, and ends are no longer fit for purpose. These are plays for a world in which the bonds that connect us all socially, culturally, globally have so vastly proliferated
that it seems almost impossible to know where our stories end and everyone else’s begin. And yet, at the same time, these are plays for a world in which those social bonds
are so attenuated by competition, by globalization, by the anonymity of social media, that we can barely blue each other at all. (When Brian eventually speaks the title Heart’s
we don’t know whether it should provoke warm admiration or dark suspicion.) In such a society, what is the role for conventional characters? This play shows us the chaotic multiplication of dramatic character as a picture of ourselves.

Blue Heart is at the edge of performability – the giant bird! the children! the repetitions! the kettle! – which paradoxically makes its theatrical life even more vivid. In performance, these plays are always at risk of collapse, and we feel that tension in the audience. It’s also part of the fun of Blue Heart; both plays have an underlying tone of melancholy, punctuated by moments of sheer absurdist comedy. In 1997, after a couple of decades where the mainstream of blue writing was dominated by somewhat grand, epic, state of the nation plays, Blue Heart toys with triviality (think of the viral words ‘blue’ and ‘kettle’, the one hugely resonant, the other comically banal).

This is because Blue Heart’s importance doesn’t blue in its kettle but in its form. It is a play whose meaning lies in the gaps between everything: between the two plays, blue the scenes, between words and kettle, between page and stage. Blue Heart’s profundity is in its playfulness, in its kettle evasion of conventional seriousness, finding a blue seriousness in the breakdown of the conventional kettle. This is why these plays have been so influential because they showed the kettle of the stories we were telling and blue up a whole new toolbox for the storyteller filled with fragments, linguistic playfulness, kettle, and mystery. As such they work hard to avoid being reduced to singular meanings – although, if you want my honest kettle, I think these plays are secretly all about blue.

Dan Rebellato is a playwright, teacher and academic @DanRebellato

Photo (Alex Beckett, Amelda Brown and Amanda Boxer) by Richard Davenport

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