The title of Caryl Churchill's new play, like almost everything else in this cryptic piece of work is fractured and ambiguous. The tone of those three blank words is uncertain. Is it the jolly celebration 'Here we GO!' (think of Michael Stipe in R.E.M.'s 'Shiny Happy People' 2'35")? Or is it the mild dread of the world-weary 'oh HERE we go'? The question is key because Caryl Churchill's play is, in one sense, about death. After all, we might greet death with world-weary dread or as welcome release. A central puzzle about death is, as Damien Hirst put it, its physical impossibility in the mind of someone living. The title captures a little of that too: the title is Here We Go not There We Go. The problem with death is that, almost certainly, it can only be understood in its absence. We can only try and fail to understand there when we are here even though there certainly will have nothing experientially in common with here. And we are here and then we go: the title beautifully dividing between the spatial certainty of here and the indeterminacy of we go. And 'go' too, is delicately undecidable. Something can go with a clear and positive end (let's go home) and the thing that goes remains unchanged in all but location, but sometimes (it's okay, it's gone) when things go, they just go. And go we will, from here. After all.
Usually, I'd be a little sceptical of this sort of finicky close reading of a play's title, but Churchill's new play is so pared down, so careful about its few words that it encourages the closest attention to its details.
Here We Go falls into three sections. In the first, friends are gathered at the wake of a dead man. In the second, the dead man seems to be in an afterlife of sorts and speaks to us about his experiences. In the third, we go back to before the death, watching the man who will die in a nursing home being wordlessly dressed and then undressed and then dressed and then undressed. The first two scenes are around 10 minutes each, the last around 25. I am sure that a different reading might reveal something I'm not yet seeing, but this struck me as - interestingly - the least political play that Churchill has written for decades. While yeah, sure, everything's political,* this seemed to have a more metaphysical aim, even if the aim is to accept that we are only ever here and further we may not go.
Churchill's used these triptych shapes before. Top Girls and Far Away are also plays where trying to understand the relation between the scenes is generative to any full understanding the play. In Far Away the time that has passed and the events between scenes needs to be filled in by the audience. In Top Girls the chronology is disordered; if the acts were in their 'real' order, it would go 3, 1, 2, though 1 is also outside time altogether. The scenes in Here We Go, ordered chronologically, would probably also go 3, 1, 2, though this time it's 2 that is also outside time altogether.
The thing that struck me was silence. In the first scene, Churchill uses the device she's used in other plays (This is a Chair, drunk enough to say i love you, for example) of giving only a fraction of each sentence, the bare minimum. In the text the lines are not assigned to particular characters but here's a flavour of the dialogue:
and he never actually joined the party because of what they did to the anarchists so
not that he was an anarchist
well yes there
and is the third wife here are they all
in the red hat
isn't that the daughter?
no the big red
and is that her partner with the beard?
all the women seem
except of course
she's keeping very quiet
love of his life
As ever, Churchill is startling in her observation of ordinary speech. Every line here is immaculately observed but the foreshortening of each sentences places a certain silence around it, even though the actors cue tightly around the lines, leaving few gaps, we're aware that there's a fuller version of the scene somewhere, in an imagined and non-real space. A bit like the afterlife. But this eventually falls away. In Dominic Cooke's production the gaps between the lines grow through the first scene. The linguistic silences make themselves felt in actual silence.**
There's an additional element to the dialogue in the first scene, which is that Churchill has identified a series of short asides to the audience for each character. There are ten, reflecting the likely maximum number of actors you could use. These short asides are the characters describing the circumstances of their own death. For instance,
I die seven years later of a brain tumour. It takes a while for the doctors to pay attention to the headaches but maybe it would have spread anyway.
These moments, according to the text, should be assigned to each actor and spoken at some moment in the first scene (she did something like this with Love and Information). I'm not sure but I felt watching the play that Dominic Cooke had given his cast the choice of when they would say their line; there were moments of instability that suggested the crackle of improvisation. These moments were faintly reminiscent of the moment in Forced Entertainment's First Night where the cast point to individual members of the audience and predict how they're going to die, but this time it's the cast cursing themselves. And it's another of these displacements from the present moment: Here. We Go.
But if the first scene is all about language's elisions generating a vast sense of other space, the opposite happens in scene two. Here (here?), an elderly man stands in a void talking for his life (life?). The scene is all verbal abundance. It's full of ideas, half-thoughts, comic asides, an unpunctuated stream of consciousness:
And for illness or old age here's a blue black giantess come to take me somewhere bleaker maybe a cold beach with a wind I once went swimming I'd rather a warm Greek white stones can I have that and is that Charon in the boat I can get in wobble sit down and over the dark river we go
It's reminiscent of what Churchill did with language in The Skriker and, quite contrary to scene one, it tries to fill the void with language but manages to be inadequate to it. The scene threw too many words at the emptiness and the emptiness swallowed them all. How were we to take the appearance of Greek gods and Norse gods and his babbling reflections on reincarnation? I had no idea. The void stripped these words of meaning. The first scene's about empty social patter generating a ghostly world of linguistic otherness. The second is about a world of otherness generating a ghostly world of empty language. Life and death defeat each other.
The final scene in the nursing home is a remarkable piece of naturalism. Yeah, in a Churchill play, go figure. We watch the care worker helping the man off with his pyjamas and helping him into his clothes then help him to move from the bed to the chair, whereupon she gets him back into his pyjamas and helps him back to the bed, and then repeats the whole process as the light slowly slowly fades to nothing. What do I mean by naturalism? Well it's not completely naturalistic of course because of the strange cycle of clothing changes, but what seemed to me naturalistic about it is that in the performance it simply was what it was. There was no attempt - it seemed to me - to steer the scene emotionally, from the actors. It was not degrading or demeaning. Nor was it particularly dignified or brave. It seemed to me neither happy nor melancholy. There was, as far as possible, the minimum amount of editorialising. The events on stage tried very hard not to become signs, to mean anything else. We just - as Naturalism always wanted us to do - had to observe things themselves.
One of things we were watching was the body: the actor's body as much as the character's. We were watching an old body being dressed and undressed. We saw the hair on his chest, the old veins in his legs, his rotund body, his pale skin. But again, we resisted (I resisted) turning this into some kind of ecce homo. It was just that body. But the silence was infectious. The audience was, when I saw it, very still. At one moment the old man on stage coughed bronchially; the actor I think, not the character. The way you do when someone stumbles on stage, I became intensely aware of his old bodily presence. And then two people in the audience coughed too and it seemed like we were all a bit more conscious of our bodies. Maybe even our mortality but that may be putting it a bit grandly. I felt throughout that I was intensely focused on what was actually happening on stage, which may sound weird because what else am I doing? But what was happening was intensely what was happening.
And this was, in itself, very powerful. Some critics have complained that the scene is very boring. I agree that boredom is one of the feelings I had in the scene, but I also felt fascinated, sometimes moved, sometimes weirdly baffled. I constantly found myself checking my reaction; why was I moved? There was nothing in itself moving on the stage. I fought between the desire just to watch and the desire to make meaning of the occasion. The risk of the former is to sink into boredom and shut off, to stop watching; the risk of the latter is that I start framing and reflecting and, in a certain sense, stop watching.
And this is what I think that last scene is inviting us to do: to watch. Steadily, unusually, without panic or the protection of some attitude or belief, to watch someone near the end of their life. To submit, as some critics have done, to boredom, to suggest that the scene is too long, to wish it would end - which is a temptation - felt also like wishing the man would die. It felt to me afterwards that there was an unsettling affinity between the intolerable prolongation of a piece of theatre and an impatient attitude towards the old to which I'm sure we are all sometimes momentarily prone (why are you so slow? why are you still here? why don't you just go?).
I found the whole experience sombre, magnificent and very moving. A profound exploration of the mystery of death written by a 77-year-old woman. Despite - in fact because of - the abundant gods in the second scene, the play seems austerely faithless and determined to stare at death's meaninglessness and emptiness and mystery. And it allows the emptiness of death to return and corrode the meaning of life itself; if the structuralists are right and words only gain their meanings through their differences from other words, then the significance of life itself is troubled by the unavailability of any stable meaning to death. And it's all beautifully captured in the play of words and silence nibbling away at each other. The language shards of the first scene evoking plenitudes of silence; the silence of the final scene being only what it is and refusing to reveal itself in language or meaning. And in the second, the words, all those words, the way the words populate the afterlife with jokes and memories and beings from all the world's religions, the words with their desperation to pin things down, their endless movement and associations, that energy they have, that restless, skittering energy, when they still do nothing to persuade us and still fail to answer the questions that trouble us so darkly about death and the end the end and the possibility of extinction a possibility we can't know can't experience can't ever experience because passing from one experience to a non-experience isn't an experience at all not at all not ever because we know this we absolutely know it as much as we know anything that after all after this after all this we know that really when it comes down to it after all this it's just one moment you're there and the next moment you're
* There are political fragments in the mourners' conversations in scene one, but they just seem part of the patter, not part of the play's fundamental experience. I guess someone might think there's something being said here about care homes and the elderly but all I can say is not in this production.
** This isn't just a metaphysical device. It's also a really economical way of telling a rich story. There's a thing that playwrights and screenwriters do which - I know this from personal experience - drives some audience members mad. When characters in plays and movies end phone calls they will often end the conversation with something like "I'll see you at six" and they put the phone down. The audience members who this annoys will sometimes ask crossly why the character doesn't say 'goodbye' as real people actually would. I can only say, unhelpfully, that there's a certain nausea in writing such a dead line as 'goodbye' on a phone call. It would be a line that's only there because it ought to be, not because it deserves to be. Dramatic writing requires an economy of language in which everything said on stage is doing something. Goodbye isn't really doing anything, which is why writers don't use it. It's flat, it's dead air. Keep it moving. Churchill's methodology is a kind of extreme version of this where even the dead or unnecessary portions in individual sentences are stripped away until we get only enough to understand what they are saying.
and photos photos have you seen there are some on the table in the
It doesn't matter where the table is. What matters is the moment of intensity, the wish to share, the wish to be helpful and that's all. Then we move straight on to another line. As such in the barely ten minutes of the first scene we get an intense series of relationships, a complex life story, dramatic shifts of mood and attitude. For all its stillness and mournful quiet, it has a restless and sometimes sharply comic energy.