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From Agitprop To Elegy
January/February 2016

Untidy, spectral: Patrick Godfrey in Caryl Churchill’s “Here We Go” (©Keith Pattison)

It is a testament to Caryl Churchill’s professional longevity that you could have noticed her back in the late 1950s, when she won her first National Drama Award straight out of Oxford, or caught her heyday as an angry woman reacting to the election of another powerfrau in Top Girls, a satirical meditation on the forgotten lives of women in history, featuring a callous recruitment agency boss, Pope Joan and a 13th-century Japanese concubine. She has charted every social and political quake of the last five decades. Serious Money, a cautionary tale of the perils of stock market speculation looks as relevant now as when it first appeared in the late 1980s.

The Churchill paradox is that her politics have remained utterly monotonous: oppressed women, catch-all critiques of democratic capitalism, and the supposed wickedness of Israel and the US.

But her command of epic theatre and range of subject matter and malleable form make her figure impossible to ignore in modern stage history.

More so than its continental rivals, British drama still operates largely within the confines of forms familiar to 19th-century dramatists. Churchill, by contrast, relishes the elasticity of drama, producing plays without stage instructions, or with truncated texts, and in one of her best — Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, a verse meditation on the 17th-century Putney debates — using the powerful plain English of the original radical texts.

Now, with Here We Go at the National,  Churchill emerges from a rather lean period as quick-fire topical dramatist to unveil a cracking short-form play on a subject that unites us all in fear and fascination — our deaths and how they will come about.

The action opens with snatches of conversations from mourners, at the funeral of a “someone” — an MP (presumably Labour, seeing as Churchill seems to like him) — a gravely admiring circle of friends all trying to say the right thing at the wake and sounding uncertain and hollow.

We move from these uneasy platitudes to Patrick Godfrey playing (we presume) the deceased and entering the afterlife — a giddy mixture of Valhalla, chintzy heaven’s gates  and the ancient Underworld.

Meditating on death has been a staple since Hamlet first held up a skull to chill his audience. But far more interesting than “Alas poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio” is the haunting line that follows, “a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times”. That was, coincidentally, one of the better moments of Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent incarnation of the grumpy Dane — the frightening, baffled sense that someone we did trivial stuff with on earth has gone.

Godfrey is a shrewd choice for the main role, an untidy spectral presence in his long johns, questing for life after death while looking as if he’d rather be back in the earthly sphere.
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