The incomparable Caryl Churchill’s latest play is like ‘A Christmas Carol’ sucked into some sort of strange existential vortex.
As it opens, John Heffernan‘s nameless man is sitting on his own at a table, nursing a glass of red wine. He appears to be having a conversation with thin air, recounting a story about an artist who ‘spent ten years trying to paint an apple so it looked just like an apple… then… seven years trying to paint an apple so it looks nothing like an apple’. It becomes apparent that he’s addressing an absent partner, who died too young.
He misses them.
He begs the universe to bring them back.
The universe answers.
Linda Bassett appears as… what? A cheery, ingratiating old lady who says she is a possible future, and that if the man can make her happen his present will be fixed. How can she do this? How can he make her happen? Would making her happen actually correct his life in the way he’s thinking, or simply reset it so he wouldn’t care about his dead partner? Is there something alarming about her hostility towards other futures?
If you’ve heard anything about ‘What If If Only’, you’ve probably heard it’s very short, just 20 minutes. This is all the space Churchill needs – her command of language is absolute, each word precise and meaningful, slashing the air like a thaumaturgic ritual. However, there are only so many *events* you can cram into 20 minutes, so I’d best stop describing the play in case I actually end up describing all of it.
But what does it mean? Clarity is never a given with Churchill, but in some ways ‘What If If Only’ is fairly straightforward: it’s about feeling somebody’s absence so profoundly that it warps your sense of reality, and it’s about reality answering back. It’s a fever-dream morality tale about the dangers of daring to challenge the absurdity of the universe.
Or it could mean something else entirely. But to unduly worry about explaining Churchill – who has never given an interview about her plays – is to perhaps miss the point. Her work operates at a low frequency – visceral, emotional, gut-level – and a high one – abstract, cerebral, unknowable. The space between, where most drama lives, simply doesn’t interest her. Long-term collaborator James McDonald’s production is moving, cryptic, funny, terrifying and ridiculous. There is nobody like Caryl Churchill and it’s hard to think of any writer in history so completely on top of their game at her age. It’s just 20 minutes, but it contains whole worlds.