Reviewing surreal theatre is never easy.
What I take away from a production might not be what the person sitting next to me takes away from it. Likewise, how the production speaks to me may not even be something that the writer was even thinking about when they put pen to paper. This was one of the reasons why I was so keen to review Melbourne Theatre Company’s celebration of the work of Caryl Churchill as they put on both Escaped Alone and What If If Only back-to-back in one magical session.
First up was the ethereal Escaped Alone which saw the stage of Southbank Theatre’s The Sumner magically transform into a beautiful meadow of long grass and beautiful flowers. So believable was the stage setting, thanks also to some well-placed fans making the grass and flowers gently move in the breeze, that I instantly felt that I was teleported to the location and sitting alongside the four women; Lena (Kate Hood), Vi (Debra Lawrence), Mrs. Jarrett (Helen Morse), and Sally (Deidre Rubenstein) who were having afternoon and reminiscing on the past.
My journey to that beautiful setting was soon violently interrupted by a jolt-inducing noise and the stage plunging into darkness as Mrs. Jarrett stood in a lone spotlight and begun to recount the horrors of an apocalypse that the Earth plunged into.
From then on, it was the power of Churchill’s script and the stunning stage work of director Anne-Louise Sarks that made sure Escaped Alone is something you will remember long after the curtain closes. From the powerful monologue about Sally’s fear of cats, Vi’s deadly secret being revealed to the moment when it feels like Mrs Jarrett’s mind finally breaks. The latter ‘incident’ was so haunting that a strange but powerful feeling of uncomfortableness swept over me as I sat in the theatre. The power generated from Churchill’s script is rare but something every theatre lover should witness.
As the production went on, Mrs Jarrett’s post-apocalyptic monologues took the audience into a darker place and I found myself reflecting on two major questions. Did the stories that Mrs Jarrett was sharing really happen and the meadow is in fact heaven, or were her words just ramblings of a woman whose mind had snapped and was now pushing her fears or nightmares onto anyone that would listen?
Further enhancing my enjoyment of the production was the performances of the four leads. Helen Morse was phenomenal and I happily I have personally finally ticked off one of my theatre bucket-lists items by seeing the amazing Debra Lawrence live on stage.
After a short intermission, we were then taken into a very different world; the world of S (Allison Bell) who is now a prisoner in her home, stricken down by grief after losing a loved one. Again, it is left up to the audience to fill in the important blanks including who she has lost. Yes, it was time for us to experience Churchill’s What If If Only.
What is clear though is that while S is upset, she wonders why that loved one can’t visit her even as a ghost. She sinks further into depression as time passes, brilliantly portrayed by the lighting work of Paul Jackson, and soon finds herself confronted by 17 ‘futures’ all demanding that she be the one that brings them to life.
Having 17 performers on stage while their characters ‘plead’ their cases to S is a mesmerizing experience and credit must be paid to young Imogen Premraj who doesn’t allow the fact that she is sharing the stage with Melbourne theatre royalty over-awe her. Instead, she steals the scene.
Much shorter than the first of the two plays, What If If Only has its own power as I found myself reflecting on whether multiple futures are even possible, and again I realised what a powerhouse of a theatre writer Caryl Churchill really is.
Seeing Escaped Alone and What If If Only performed together is a truly powerful experience. From the stunning set design of Marg Horwell in Escaped Alone to the confronting ensemble performance of What If If Only, there is so much that I found myself taking away from this double bill, but nothing will stay with me as much as the words of genius from Caryl Churchill.
Melbourne Theatre Company’s Escaped Alone and What If If Only is now playing at Southbank Theatre’s The Sumner until September 9. For more information and ticketing please visit:
Photography by Pia Johnson.