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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 481-484
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Spinning Into Butter
The Bogus Woman
Spinning Into Butter. By Rebecca Gilman. Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London. 24 January 2001.
Far Away. By Caryl Churchill. Albery Theatre, London. 10 February 2001.
Credible Witness. By Timberlake Wertenbaker. Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London. 15 February 2001.
The Bogus Woman. By Kay Adshead. The Bush Theatre, London. 27 February 2001.
The Mother. By Bertolt Brecht. Battersea Arts Centre, London. 8 April 2001.
Political theatre in London is suffering from diminished subsidies, the demise of important producing companies such as Monstrous Regiment, and limited numbers of venues that support and encourage political work. Yet the 2001 winter season offered new plays by Caryl Churchill, Timberlake Wertenbaker, and Rebecca Gilman, a revival by Bertolt Brecht, and an Edinburgh Fringe transfer by Kay Adshead. In each instance, the emphasis on race, identity, social action, and, above all, strong female voice gave these productions a fervent timeliness during a period of complacent affluence in Britain. While several of the plays illustrated the limitations of the realistic form--potentially too reductive and essentialist a medium to carry a political message--others used more presentational means to challenge audiences with ideas about social injustice.
Arguably the most important political playwright in contemporary Britain, Caryl Churchill created, in Far Away, a terrifying vision of dystopia, where cultural and social norms slid headlong into war. A Royal Court transfer to the West End, Far Away consisted of three episodes that progressed from secret domestic horror to absurd descriptions of the nationalistic alliances made by animals and birds in a new world war. Stephen Daldry directed the play with an almost clinical detachment. A young girl, finding refuge with her relatives, confronted her aunt (Linda Bassett) late one night about what she had seen out the window. On a tightly framed minimalist stage, suggesting a cozy English cottage, young Joan (Annabelle Seymour-Julen) revealed that she had heard screams, seen furtive activity in the garage, witnessed a lorry unloading refugees, and did not understand why she saw her uncle beat a man and a child with a stick. With each revelation, the aunt tried to explain rationally the situation but was clearly unnerved by what Joan had seen. She stayed glued to her chair, trying to coax her niece back to bed. The lack of emotional affect and the underlying tension of each revelation were reminiscent of the restraint practiced by the English in wartime, when everyone sacrificed for the good of the whole. Basset's Aunt Harper was a suspicious, frightened, caring woman who desperately wanted to believe she was siding with the right and wanted to protect her niece from knowing too much about wars that happen "far away."
Subsequent scenes did not fulfill the promise of this early action. Several years later, Older Joan (Katherine Tozer) worked in a hat factory; she created outlandishly bizarre hats for a mysterious weekly contest and argued about better conditions for the workers. In the production's most disturbing sequence, a long line of ragged prisoners in chains moved across the horizon of the stage, modeling Dr. Seuss-like hats on their way to execution. The image of a smoky gas chamber loomed as the incongruous parade continued. Interestingly, the workers ignored the fate of the prisoners, but their banal dialogue and silly hats elicited titters from the audience the night I saw the play, destroying a tension that might have resulted from the stark contrast between the hatmakers and the holocaust vision of doomed camp victims. In the [End Page 481] final scene, back at Aunt Harper's, where Joan sought refuge following a retreat through the war-ravaged countryside, the characters reported that cats were siding with the French and that mallards were committing rape and siding with Koreans. This matter-of-fact recitation of atrocities reminded one of Edward Bond's early plays, but the gravity of the horror was undermined by the absurdity of...