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Theatre

Why Caryl Churchill is massively overrated - and how the National Theatre befriends terror

Plus: only Eugene O’Neill maniacs will want to catch Ah, Wilderness! at the Young Vic

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire

Lyttelton, in rep until 22 June

Ah, Wilderness!

Young Vic, until 23 May

Enter Rufus Norris. The new National Theatre boss is perfectly on-message with this debut effort by Caryl Churchill. Her 1976 play about inequality screams, ‘Vote Ed’ at triple-klaxon volume. Not that anyone in the audience was won over. They’d made up their minds long ago. Which is just as well because the play is hopelessly ineffective on every level. Churchill must be the most over-rated writer the English theatre has produced. She has virtually no dramatic skills. She can knock out humourless preachy rhetoric by the yard but as for the rest of it she hasn’t a clue. She can’t write a plot. She can’t create a human individual or differentiate one character from another with quirks of thought, word or deed. Wit, comedy, spectacle, suspense and revelation are all but unknown to her. It’s hard to trace any connection between one part of the script and another. All her scenes are shapeless prolix creatures. Each is dropped on to an empty stage from nowhere and it crawls forwards, rather than developing, with groups of samey-sounding chatterboxes taking it in turns to recite gobbets of oratory in support of one or other left-wing view. She seems reluctant, in this play at least, to give her political foes any kind of platform.

The setting is the English Civil War and the Putney Debates that formed the basis of today’s parliamentary conventions. Tricky stuff to dramatise because the material is so static and wordy, and the issues are rather abstruse, but Churchill regards these problems as virtues to be emphasised rather than vices to be diminished. It feels like a tepid debate in a village hall run by chippy Marxists. The characters kept talking about ‘pot pourri’ until I realised they meant ‘popery’. As the first act dribbled to an end, the ushers had to initiate the clapping because there was no hint from the stage that a point of completion, let alone a climax, had been reached.


Act two was miles worse. All the characters evinced the same tone of pious accusation. One eloquent bumpkin declared that while he was starving to death (which was my fault, by the way), he trained his body to digest grass. Another smock-clad martyr suggested that to buy meat (which I don’t, but it’s still my fault) is morally identical to cannibalising babies.

It’s quite a paradox that Lyndsey Turner’s production is so amply supplied with the parasitical opulence that Churchill commands us to reject. The original version had six actors. Here there are several dozen and they include 20 mute extras dressed as Cavaliers in lace and velvet who sit around a vast table consuming a make-believe banquet. To hire trained actors as mere decoration is the indulgence of a totalitarian nutcase in the last throes of a crumbling reign. But this banana-republic extravagance marks Rufus Norris’s debut as the NT’s supremo. As the inaction ground relentlessly onward, I glanced down at the programme notes, which were supplied by John Rees. I assume he was paid for this work. And his article included a plug for his new book. John who? John Rees. You may have seen a part of his arm recently. He’s a left-wing evangelist, of dogged application and limited powers, who received national exposure in February at a press conference hosted by the activist group Cage, during which its director, Asim Qureshi, described Mohammed Emwazi as ‘humble’, ‘kind’ and ‘beautiful’. Sitting on Qureshi’s left was Rees. What does it mean that his work appears in the NT programme? Simply that the National promotes a man who supports a man who praises a man who films himself murdering British and American citizens by cutting off their heads. The NT, in a word, befriends terror. Worth considering next time your cursor hovers over the ‘Buy Tickets’ icon on its website.

Ah, Wilderness! by Eugene O’Neill is a coming-of-age melodrama set in Connecticut in 1906. Sorry, not melodrama. It’s a comedy. Or so it’s billed. And it might feel funny if placed alongside his other work but it hasn’t the laugh count to qualify as a mirth-fest in its own right. The design in Natalie Abrahami’s production keeps threatening to outsmart the actors. The domestic setting is suggested by a series of zigzagging sand ramps that rise from a central pit occupied by a scuffed dune of blond granules. It looks like a crazy golf course designed by someone with a ton of gravel to offload. A botched line of doorways, minus the doors, creates a row of mysterious black oblongs that resemble rotting teeth. And the costumes are oddly mismatched. Some characters wear modern casuals, some sport the more formal gear of the early 20th century. O’Neill maniacs determined to complete the set will rush to see this. Others will hesitate. Wisely, I’d say.


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