One of the things I love about Lucy Kirkwood is that she never repeats herself. None of her plays are like each other. Chimerica is nothing like Tinderbox is nothing like it felt empty when the heart went... is nothing like NSFW is nothing like The Children is nothing like Mosquitoes. There are some motifs that run through the plays - moments of desperate moral choice, people living with their own terrible decisions, relations between the old and the young, a feminist vein running through everything - but really, if you'd seen Chimerica, would you have guessed that the same woman wrote NSFW? And I think that's an admirable thing. Kirkwood has a restless talent; she pushes herself with everything she writes. This is exposing, of course; the risks of failure suddenly flare up bold and bright when you start with a new dramatic form.
Interestingly (if I haven't imagined this), but this actually seems something more typical of women playwrights this century than men. Moira Buffini's plays are virtually unrecognisable one to another. Lucy Prebble goes somewhere entirely new with each play. There are perhaps some stylistic echoes between Alice Birch's plays, but the forms and structures and tones are always new. Maybe it's the influence of our great dramaturgical shape-shifter, Caryl Churchill, who has never written the same play twice, who invents extraordinary new structures and techniques and then never uses them again. There are echoes of Churchill in Kirkwood (as there are in virtually anyone decent writing now). Last year, I bookended my theatregoing with Churchill's Escaped Alone and Kirkwood's The Children, a beautiful (though, I'm sure, inintentional) pairing about old age, England, and terrible calamity, both marked by surprising and heart-stopping moments of music and deep personal pain.
So what's the new one? Mosquitoes is set over three years between 2006 and 2009. Jenny and Alice are sisters. Alice is a physicist who lives in Geneva for most of the play, where she works in the CERN Laboratory on the Large Hadron Collider. Jenny, on the other hand, is a sarcy, funny, wastrel who believes what she reads on the internet. When we first meet her she is pregnant but later we discover that as a result of her refusal to give her new child the MMR vaccine, the girl dies of a preventable disease. She visits Alice in Geneva, where Alice's son, Luke, is having difficulties in his Swiss school, forlornly pursuing a girl, living on his computer, and getting into fights. At one point he runs away and Alice is frantic. Meanwhile Jenny is on a downward spiral of self-destruction. When Luke returns, but is humiliated by his would-be girlfriend, who sends his cock pic around the school. He sends a virus into the CERN network, via his mum's laptop, but Jenny takes the blame. This leads to a near-final rupture between the sisters, but a year later they appear possibly on the path to reconciliation at Jenny reveals she is pregnant again.
The tone of this one is deceptive. It starts very light, very funny, but it gets darker and more alarming, mining comedy out of pain, but also pain out of the comedy. There are also science lectures, of a sort, about the end of the world and alternative universes. Jenny's character is particularly interesting (it made me think a little about Mary in Common which I saw last night); initially she is lovably scatty and enjoyably caustic, but her waywardness has terrible consequences and her behaviour becomes reckless, self-destructive and also just destructive. The smiles freeze on our faces. The loss of children haunts this play, a metaphor perhaps for the indeterminacy of our physical microverse (Heisenberg is mentioned at one point): in all of our lives we either know how fast we're travelling or where we're going but never at the same time, which makes our wanderings so hard to control. And there is something elegantly simple but also resonant in the central presence of the LHC, ramming these protons at each other and hoping to produce some invisible other particle, that suggests the way that our orderly lives may just be chaotic collisions of unpredictable people, but also that through all the chaos there is the regularity of something produced, be it love, be it the Higgs Boson.
But also, and I apologise for the crass way I'm going to say it, but this is also one of the first really powerful plays about Brexit and Trump. This is a play about our terrible ability to believe plausible lies, the way a lurking irrationality can have us all replicate and pass on nonsense just because on some egoistic level, it feels like it should be right. More literally we have Trump's contempt for the climate scientists (it's all just opinion) and Gove's disregard of experts. In a way, the visions of catastrophe in this play (we are given six scenarios for the end of the universe) seem also fearful visions, on a more domestic level, of the consequences of our electrostatic attraction to the lie. Various kinds of nonsense ripple through the play: praying, crystals, pseudo-science, horoscopes, innumeracy, racism, dementia, and Andrew Wakefield's cruel campaign against MMR The play swims in a world of lies: even at the turning on of the LHC, we see a reporter ask the scientists if there's a risk that it will create a black hole that will destroy the earth. But these are the waters we, too, swim in. This year we're drowning in them.
It's a very fine production, with a superb cast, led magnificently by Olivia Coleman (hilarious, wicked, desperate) and Olivia Williams (cool, elegant, fragile, desperate). Rufus Norris keeps things moving beautifully, the play, in the round, vaguely suggesting an atom, without making too much of that. There are hints of Frayn's Copenhagen, of Payne's Constellations, and of Haddon/Stephens's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime in the play and the production. Amanda Boxer is the two women's mother is particular fine, a dignified (but deluded?) long-suffering woman, sensing a gradual and permanent decline of her mind.
It's a hugely enjoyable play and yet quietly shattering at moments. The play is at its best when the two sisters are on stage together, not just because of the performances, but because here, I think, is where the writing is most heartfelt. And it's also where the writing is funniest; the opening scene is just breathlessly funny. And there are some wonderful moments, particularly for Jenny, who is an unforgivably brilliant creation and a total pain. There's a marvellous scene (SPOILER ALERT) where she talks to Luke who has just discovered his viral humiliation: Jenny asks to look at the picture so she can assess how embarrassing this is. Her response - 'Okay, so that's a great cock' - is so wonderfully inappropriate, so complicated (does she mean it or is she making it up to make him feel better? which would be even worse) and yet works so well. And there's another, smaller moment that moved me to tears. The scientists have found a way to turn the data on the higgs boson into sound and there's a competition to turn this sound into music. Alice asks Luke to have a go - he's good with computers and music. Initially he refuses, but later, in an almost wordless scene, we see him give the headphones to his mother and she listens, only half trusting him, only half getting it, but moved nonetheless.
There are things I wasn't sure about. I think the science imagery is quite diffuse and varied, which tends to have a centrifugal effect on the play, though I held onto the bits that touched me and stored away the other stuff to think about later. I got slightly lost around Luke's disappearance, not entirely sure how long he'd been missing, nor why Alice doesn't know he's back, when the whole school has just received a photo of his cock; and then it seemed odd to me that Alice needles him so quickly when you'd think she'd just be relieved to have him home. I noted that in the script, she begins the second half with a long speech about the end of the world. Presumably to balance the two halves (and not make, cardinal sin, the second half longer than the first), the speech has been moved to the end of the first half. This seems to me a mistake. Kirkwood's instincts are right about where to take the interval and the force of that speech is compromised in its new position.
It's a ferocious, funny and moving play. Lucy Kirkwood is writing prolifically right now but, like Heisenberg's electron, we can know her velocity, but not her direction. I can't wait to see where she goes next.