Toby Jones, Louisa Harland and Deborah Findlay – image by Johan Persson
Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. by Caryl Churchill – Royal Court Theatre, London
A new Caryl Churchill play is an event, and four at once is an unmissable treat. Churchill, without ever seeking the accolade, has become widely acknowledged as the greatest living British playwright in recent years, wider appreciation of her work helped by National Theatre revivals of Top Girls and A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. However, her mastery of form means there’s no knowing what she will come up with next – a very exciting prospect from a writer whose creativity shows no signs of dimming. Glass, Kill, Bluebeard and Imp are short plays, starting with the shortest and ending with the longest, with entirely different settings but linked by the themes of the intrusion of myth and superstition into reality. They are all extraordinary.
Glass is set partly on a mantlepiece, where a girl made of glass exists both in the world of humans and of ornaments. She is transparent and brittle – everyone can see what she feels by looking through her. It is very strange and very compelling, with everyday teenage scenes cut through with the impossible. Kill is a tour de force for writer and performer, with Tom Mothersdale as a Greek god sitting on a cloud recounting, in bemused tones, the endlessly complex and grim sequence of events that culminated in the story of Oedipus. The insanely violent story exposes the metaphysical as a very thin cloak indeed for the worst humans can do. Kill, the final play in the first half, is both funny and horrible, as a group of friends share their disbelief that their friend Bluebeard was a wife killer and, in a succession of short scenes, gauge their #metoo era reactions. It is not long before they are releasing murder merchandise.
The scene change between these three plays are covered by a juggler and an acrobat, whose performances to melancholy circus music question our need for entertainment. This touch is typical of James Macdonald’s production, which is exceptionally sharp, cleverly use minimal changes of position to move between scenes. The plays appear inside a black box where, in Miriam Buether designs, the action is floats on a shelf, carpet or cloud. The final play, Imp, takes place on a sofa and armchair, and is both the most ordinary and the strangest part of the evening. Dot (Deborah Findlay) and Jimmy (Toby Jones) are cousins, sharing a house, with little in their lives. Their niece, Niamh (Louisa Harland) comes by often and meets another visitor, the homeless Rob (Tom Mothersdale). On the face of it, nothing much happens, but the dialogue is intense, precise and haunted by myth. Jimmy keeps recounting stories he’s heard that sound strangely like King Lear or Romeo and Juliet; Niamh is afraid she may get sucked in by things she can’t control; and Dot, a nurse imprisoned for violence, has an imp in a bottle. The implied intrusion of the supernatural into an everyday setting is brilliantly handled, and reminiscent of Annie Baker’s John as well as Pinter characters who talk about nothing and everything.
Churchill’s fine writing has the cast to match, with performances of the highest standard, not only from Findlay, Jones, Mothersdale and Harland, but across all four plays with, for example, Kwabenah Ansah as a self-regarding clock in Glass and Sarah Niles as a woman who nearly married Bluebeard. The evening is an essential piece of new writing – edgy, haunting and disconcertingly relevant and Churchill, at the age of 81, is still the playwright for our times.