‘Far Away’ review

Theatre, Experimental
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
Far Away, Donmar Warehouse, 2020
Photograph: Johan Persson

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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Caryl Churchill’s audacious dystopian short gets a fine revival, with a moment of mind-blowing spectacle

Caryl Churchill’s 2000 play ‘Far Away’ is perhaps the ultimate fan favourite out of her kaleidoscopic oeuvre. A vision of hell painted in boldly brief brushstrokes, it’s revered less because of the relatively small amount of time it’s spent in theatres, more because of how powerfully and pithily it reads on the page. 

It’s a big ask to stage. There’s little room for deviation from Churchill’s precisely disorientating vision. It has a single audacious, wordless scene that borders on the unstageable. And it’s all wrapped up in a box-office-unfriendly 40 minutes. Director Lyndsey Turner has recently turned in huge, maximalist takes on Churchill’s ‘Light Shining in Buckinghamshire’ and ‘Top Girls’, at a scale far greater than they were conceived at. Wisely, she does no such thing with ‘Far Away’.

Her intimate Donmar production boasts a bit of celebrity casting (Jessica Hynes, playing it fairly straight as seemingly benign but possibly malign matriarch figure Harper), world-class lighting from Peter Mumford, and a nifty electronic score from Christopher Shutt. But otherwise – and with the exception of that single spectacular scene, which gets the Hollywood treatment it deserves, even if it is only about a minute long – it’s not so very different from the version I saw staged on a budget of about 50p at the Young Vic in 2014. It’s not a play for a director to indulge their ego with. It’s a play to witness Churchill at hurricane force, savage, hilarious, totally unlike anyone else.

In the first scene a young girl, Joan (a role shared by Sophia Ally and Abbiegail Mills) is staying with Hynes’s Harper, who would appear to be her aunt, for reasons that are unclear – a holiday? An evacuation? In a morbidly comic dialogue, she tells Harper about the brutal treatment of a group of prisoners she witnessed at the hands of her uncle; Harper keeps trying to come up with innocuous explanations, which are drolly undercut in turn by Joan as she relates some new detail she saw. 

In the middle section, an older Joan (Aisling Loftus) is working in a hat factory. It is her first week, and we see her chat with her jaded co-worker Todd (Simon Manyonda), who finds himself revitalised by her enthusiasm for the task.

Partway through this bit, we see what the hats are for, even if the why is left to our imagination. It wouldn’t spoil the plot to say what happens, but it’s such a blackly comic, ineffably horrible spectacle, and Turner plays it in such a jaw-droppingly dazzling way – shout out to designer Lizzie Clachan and the London College of Fashion MA students, who made the hats – that I feel going into detail isn’t helpful. But certainly you’ll see where your ticket price went.

The final, physically lowkey but verbally even more daring scene, is set further in the future in a world where, according to the conversation between Harper, Joan and Todd,  everything is at war with everything else: the wasps, the horses, the butterflies, the computer programmers, the dentists, and of course, the French, all locked into an endless infinite cycle of partisan violence.

Probably inspired by the horrors of the Balkans, ‘Far Away’ is a surreal vision of rapid societal collapse that could very easily be applied to Iraq or to Syria or – in its portrait of hyperpartisanship, if not so much the deaths – rather closer to home. 

The highest praise you can say about this production is that Turner has made the play work – she hasn’t so much interpreted ‘Far Away’ as summoned it from the plane of Churchill’s imagination.

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