Ordinary heroism – four women bare their lives in Circa Theatre’s new Caryl Churchill play “Escaped Alone”

Caryl Churchill's Escaped Alone Circa Theatre 2017





Carmel McGlone, Irene Wood, Ginette McDonald, Jane Waddell

Escaped Alone
by Caryl Churchill
A play in One Act

Circa Theatre, Wellington
Directed by Susan Wilson
Music by Gareth Farr
Set by John Hodgkins
Lighting by Marcus McShane

Ginette McDonald – Mrs Jarrett
Carmel McGlone – Vi
Jane Waddell – Lena
Irene Wood – Sally

NZ Premiere, Circa Theatre, Wellington, Saturday 11th March 2017

– this performance Tuesday 14th March

Back in days of yore, I remember taking part in a one-act play written by Irishman Brian Friel, called “Lovers, Winners”, a scenario involving two actors and two narrators. The former were the eponymous “Lovers”, who enacted a single day’s events, their interchanges filled with hopes and plans for their future, while the two narrators (I was one) took turns to counterpoint the stage action with a matter-of-fact commentary informing the audience of the tragedy that was to shortly befall the happy pair.

At the time I thought it extraordinary how so undynamic and indeed almost absurdly pre-emptive a theatrical scheme could generate such emotional heft. It was the cool, pitiless rending of the fabric of the lovers’ dreams and expectations in direct parallel with their expressions of hope and future delight which gave the piece its clout, the wrenching away of one’s ongoing identification with something beautiful and touching in the light of cold, cruel facts. How more theatrical a situation was that? – having to arbitrate in situ between emotion and intellect, warm action and cold narrative, and processes cheek-by jowl with outcomes?

Something akin to those parallel processes which so captivated me about Friel’s work all those years ago hung potently over a different theatrical scenario, Caryl Churchill’s latest work “Escaped Alone”, which received its NZ premiere in Wellington on Saturday (11th March), and which I saw on Tuesday evening at Circa Theatre. From a disjointed sequence of backyard exchanges between a group of women, three friends and a passing neighbour built up sinewy strands which gradually grew from beneath the myriad of topics brushed onto the dialogue’s canvas like so many wisps of paint. We weren’t allowed to let any detail slip, however trivial or elliptical, as something which seemed incidental at first would occasionally be opened up like a door or a window, becoming a view of or portal towards something hitherto concealed, something which threatened to fill the vistas with a private fear or near apocalyptic horror.

For the four women the talk centred on trivialities and circled around unspoken things, as if all were like friendly, domesticated jackals probing unseen carcasses, very occasionally showing teeth, but mostly keeping on the move. From this spin of interaction, the first to break cover was Sally (played by Irene Wood) who suddenly freeze-framed at the thought of cats, airing her fears in mounting waves of compounded horror. After this came Jane Waddell’s Lena, who bravely and resolutely chanced her all, broke out of her shell and fronted up to her own depressive state of fearfully-burgeoning inactivity – and finally there was Carmel McGlone’s Vi, squarely eyeballing her friends’ not altogether supportive raising-up of a ghost bearing the trauma of a violent domestic incident between her and her husband resulting in his death at her hand. Thus exposed, these individual strands multi-tasked as trip-wires, gallows-nooses, anchor-chains, life-lines and jungle vines, as each woman wrestled with or swung from each in turn, dealing with their private struggles and displaying fear, resolve and strength as required.

Seemingly not quite “in the swim” of things at first, but making an effort to get to the pitch of the exchanges was Mrs Jarrett, the passing neighbour, part-invitee to the gathering and part-spontaneous gate-crasher (laconically played by Ginette McDonald). But then, without any warning or invitation she silenced the talk by standing up and stepping across and into a kind of gloom-induced vortex of oracular space lit by mysterious patternings. In matter-of-fact “voice of history” tones she began to recount descriptions of the most catastrophic upheavals and dystopian societal behaviours surpassing all previous instances known of “human inhumanity’ in their horror and cold-blooded uncaring cruelty.

These utterances became increasingly bizarre over each of several episodes, as worst-case scenarios joined forces with absurdities, relished all the more by McDonald’s “and that’s not the worst of it….” delivery. Eventually even Mrs Jarrett herself was momentarily transfixed from within, but by nothing that seemed to cohere, except what was suggested by the words “terrible rage” repeated by the character in a frightening crescendo. What prompted this could have been anything – and in the light of the apocalyptic atrocities she’d described as the oracle, her incoherence as her “normal” self was, somehow, even more disturbing than were the phobic and/or traumatic scenarios outlined by her companions.

By this time my initial, fetched-up memories of the parallel time-frames of my long-ago Irish play were well-and-truly overlaid by the complexities of Churchill’s view of the human condition, individuals besieged by foes without and within, and consciousness visited by “ghosts of Christmasses to come” bearing unpalatable tidings of civilisation’s impending dissolution. But as Brian Friel designated his doomed lovers as “Winners” in that aforementioned one-act play’s title, so here in “Escaped Alone” do the four women each emerge, albeit painfully and experience-ravaged, as “winners” by their own lights. They’re all obviously survivors, and their achievement even has a group anthem, here a slickly-harmonised rendition of the 1960s pop-song “Da Do Ron, Ron”, which completely dominated a whole swinging, foot-tapping sequence of the play! Elsewhere, Gareth Farr’s cool, anecdotal music fitted the production’s ambiences hand-in-glove, as notable for the silences it framed as for its own aural wallpaper voice aiding and abetting the mood of lives some of whose sequences seemed like rhythms measured out by coffee-spoons.

Both the playwright and the people involved with this production of “Escaped Alone” nailed fast my sensibilities, adroitly handling the balance of what seemed “real” alongside what seemed “imagined”, and presenting the contrasts between the two as symptomatic of the puzzle proposed in Pontius Pilate’s famous question to Jesus Christ – “What is truth?” And though Caryl Churchill wrote this play before the triumph of Trumpery and the burgeoning worldwide crystallisation of the concept of “fake news”, the character of Mrs Jarrett in her “oracular mode” seemed equally as potent as a receptacle for the promulgation of untruths served up as titillating sensation by way of rendering news as “entertainment” – certainly Ginette McDonald’s character while in these pronouncement modes seemed to drift into a space on the stage without proper substance, as if she had become an image on a computer or tv monitor.

Susan Wilson’s production in Circa Two’s intimate spaces was as confrontational as it needed to be within an “ordinary/fabulous relationship” of outward everyday functionality and concealed terror/agony/grief. Each character’s individual mind-spaces of trauma could have been further intensified by technical means (lighting, sound effects), especially Mrs Jarrett’s mind-boggling prophetic/absurdist sequences – except that this may have fatally estranged those relativities of order and chaos – they needed to be held in touch rather than become ends in themselves; and the direction and the acting performances adroitly kept those unities, those multi-faceted strands, connected.

We warmed to each of the personalities and took heart at their grit and determination to go on with their outwardly routine and inwardly desperate lives – like Voltaire’s Candide, making sense of life by simply making the garden grow – and the play’s final scene, an almost pantheistic appreciation of a beautiful late-afternoon seemed a kind of heart-warming apotheosis of ordinary existence, one to put alongside the “Da Do Ron Ron” anthem in its “We know what it’s like for you as well” message. Be it as a Cassandra-like prophetess, a Candide-like homespun philosopher, or a Tin Pan Alley girl-group balladeer, Caryl Churchill’s voice speaks volumes in “Escaped Alone”, the play’s moments per minute delivered tellingly and sure-footedly by Circa’s all-star cast and director.

Caryl Churchill’s “Escaped Alone” plays at Circa Theatre, Wellington until the 8th of April.

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