Caryl Churchill is by far the greatest playwright working in the English language today. Sometimes that makes reviewing her a bit of a pain. Her latest, ‘Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp.’ is a virtuoso quartet of plays that will probably take years to digest fully, in which her almost supernatural powers of language remain entirely undimmed.
That said, in a vague, futile attempt to offer up some critical perspective here, it’s probably not the out-and-out masterpiece that her last play for the Royal Court, 2016’s ‘Escaped Alone’ was. But like pretty much everything she does, it is a remarkable work, so maybe let’s just agree that as a starting point and move on.
As the title suggests, it comprises four pieces. The first three are short, the last (‘Imp’) is fairly long. All of them are linked by a fascination with myths and stories: be it the prissy Greek gods in ‘Kill’, or the surreal Shakespeare-related anecdotes that Toby Jones’s excruciating uncle character Jimmy keeps coming out with in ‘Imp’.
Following ‘Glass’, an unsettling portrait of adolescence that revolves around a doomed girl made out of glass, and ‘Kill’, in which Tom Mothersdale’s amusingly pernickety Gods drones his way though the bloodiness of Greek mythology while disassociating himself from it (‘we can enjoy a war, we don’t exist’), the first half reaches its most incisive and decipherable point with ‘Bluebeard’s Friends’.
Set at a sort of endless series of half-implied dinner parties, it follows a quartet of erstwhile friends of the pirate Bluebeard, who has been outed as murdering his wives. The friends chatter: of course they didn’t know anything. Eventually, they try to monetise their relationship with Bluebeard in an absurdly macabre way. It’s a delicate but dagger-sharp attack on post-#MeToo hypocrisy that might have made an amusing skit in somebody else’s hands, but Churchill continues to drive her point home with implacable inventiveness. (It’s easy to think Churchill is on a high horse – but knowing her history with this building, one suspects there’s an element of self-laceration here).
After the interval is the much longer ‘Imp’, both the most formally conventional play and the most cryptic in its messaging. It has shades of Pinter, as a middle-aged brother and sister (Jones’s Jimmy and Deborah Findlay’s Dot), living in a shabby flat, have a series of sometimes banal, sometimes baffling conversions with their young Irish ‘niece’ Niamh (Louisa Harland), and Rob (Mothersdale again), a homeless man. One day, the conversation between Rob and Jimmy turns to an empty, corked bottle owned by the absent Dot. Apparently it has an invisible imp in it that will grant wishes. But does it?
Analysing one Caryl Churchill play is a nightmare, let alone four. As a quartet they are very discrete entities (to the point that the length of ‘Imp’ feels a touch unbalancing). But they reflect upon each other too. They’re about the power of stories as enablers of human behaviour. Bluebeard’s friends tell themselves endless tales about how they didn’t know about his actions, while simultaneously cashing in on the infamy of them. Gods proclaims himself not to be real, while listing all the things done in his name. The characters in ‘Glass’ may not even be living things – they have been anthropomorphised into tragedy. And in ‘Imp’, the question of whether there is a real imp seems irrelevant: the opening of the bottle does the trick anyway.
I haven’t even really talked about the production, which is expertly handled by Churchill’s long term director James Macdonald. Miriam Buether’s sets are wittily excellent, particularly the mountingly absurd phantasmagoria of ‘Bluebeard’s Friend’ and Gods’s ironic cloud in ‘Kill’. But Macdonald’s biggest intervention is having a juggler and an acrobat silently entertain us during the scene changes – it adds a sort of mocking note of vaudeville that chimes smartly with the words.
The cast is excellent too. They’re precise conduits for the words, rather than expected to turn in flamboyant individual turns, but Jones and Findlay are particularly good in ‘Imp’ – blank, banal suburban figures with alarmingly jagged rocks beneath their placid surfaces.
I suspect ‘Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp.’ won’t end up as revered as ‘Top Girls’ or ‘Far Away’, if only because of the fact that it’s a shorts collection. But who knows what afterlives these plays will have, together or individually. Right here, right now, they’re a testament to a writer whose talent at the age of 81 still burns almost too bright to look at.