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It’s been a funny old year, as they say, and a revival of ‘Far Away’, Caryl Churchill’s remarkable, dizzyingly short evocation of a world in total, bloody collapse seems pretty appropriate right now.
Surprisingly few directors have the bottle to revive work by Britain’s greatest living dramatist – the surreal singularity of Churchill’s vision understandably scares the shit out of people – but young director Kate Hewitt is looking to make a mark after winning the prestigious JMK Award, and she acquits herself well with this production in the Young Vic’s studio space, financed by the prize money.
Just 35 minutes long, ‘Far Away’ offers five cryptic, chilling, funny vignettes of a society heading towards, and then over the totalitarian brink. In the first, a woman, Harper (Tamzin Griffin) offers benign, condescending assurance towards her young niece, Joan, that the gruesome scenes the little girl has stumbled across in the shed are nothing to worry about; in the mid sections, an adult Joan (Samantha Colley, fresh from her breakout role in the Old Vic’s ‘The Crucible’ and excellent here) is working in a hatting factory, grumbling about conditions while seemingly totally unconcerned by the fact that the hats are destined to be worn by prisoners on the day of their executions; and in the last scene we skip forward to a world in hilariously extreme total war, where ‘The cats have come in on the side of the French,’ as everyone in existence goes to war with everything else.
Clearly the JMK Award doesn’t provide for the hugest of budgets, but Hewitt and designer Georgia Lowe use their scant resources slyly – initially it looks like the only set is the makeshift-looking wooden traverse stage, but a series of well-hidden trapdoors and other devices unleash a small torrent of coups de théâtre – in particular the mass execution scene, disarmingly fully realised.
Ultimately, though, Hewitt’s main achievement is simply to carry off this remarkable play. The ironically named ‘Far Away’ offers a vision of a world consumed by conflict and indifference that was staggeringly prescient back in 2000; but its deliberate extremity is such that, 14 years on, it still feels like there is a warning to be listened to here.