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A CurtainUp Review
--- Lizzie Loveridge's review of the Royal Court Production of Far Away
Fresh from his acclaimed film direction of Billy Elliot Stephen Daldry has chosen a new play by Caryl Churchill to return to London's boards. There were those, and I unequivocally state that I am not among them, who felt that Daldry's venture into the film world erred on the side of sentiment or predictability. Well those critics can come and see Far Away which is as obscure and enigmatically puzzling as almost anything on London's Fringe. Caryl Churchill's last play Blue Heart which I saw at London's Pleasance theatre was about language with elements of surrealism, and parts of the play were very funny. Like Blue Heart, Far Away challenges convention in its content.
The play, running at just over the hour, falls into three acts, the character Joan connecting all three as a child initially and later as a young woman. In the first scene set in a cottage in the country, Joan (Annabelle Seymour-Julen) is a visitor to her aunt's house. She questions Aunt Harper (Linda Bassett), about what she has seen her uncle doing in the shed. As the child's questions probe, the aunt produces more and more elaborate lies to cover the uncle's violence and brutality. In the second scene Joan (Katherine Tozer), now grown up, is a milliner, making hats for a competition with another milliner, Todd. (Kevin McKidd). They flirt, compete as the fabulous hats are blocked and created. The extravagant hats are paraded by prisoners, chained together with leg irons, on their way to an execution. In the final scene Todd and Harper are at the cottage discussing a war which has encompassed the animals as well the nations of the world. Joan and Todd are now a couple and in a final moment of surrealism, we are told that the river also has taken sides in this bizarre Armageddon.
Daldry has given us a brilliant first scene, evocative of childhood, of things we did not understand, but that worried us as children. Throughout there is the purity of a child's voice questioning evil. Harper, the aunt, tries to reassure but in fact does the opposite as she lies, and as each element the child has seen, is revealed. The atmosphere in the cottage, the aunt's unease, the child's innocence are conveyed beautifully. The milliners' sexual banter is fun but in numbing contrast is "The Parade", a dreadful procession of starving, ragged people, brutally chained together but wearing "hats to die for" and holding cards with huge numbers. The shallow demands of "prisoners of fashion" are juxtaposed with genocide; the effect is searing. The final scene is like a flight of language, funny as the Latvian dentists take up with the crocodiles against the Brazilians. It is a game we can all play. The images are superficially comic, vicious butterflies and ruthless deer coming into the war but the end result is the earth and everything in it, turning against itself to the death.
I very much liked the portrayal of the aunt, Harper by Linda Bassett whom you may remember for her award nominated performance in the film East is East. Her matter of fact delivery of explanations to the child made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Daldry has discovered how to get good acting performances out of children and Annabelle Seymour-Julen, as the young Joan does not disappoint. She is upright, clear and direct. Kevin McKidd, as Todd, Katherine Tozer, as the adult Joan both of them artistically volatile, adept actors. We see their believable relationship develop in the workplace to the point where they are personally caught up in the war of the world. Tozer has a light touch and good contrast between her carefree, unquestioning milliner and the girl trapped in total war.
I wondered at first why Daldry had chosen to mount this play in such a tiny theatre as the Jerwood Upstairs when his talent could fill the Royal Albert Hall. However, I stopped wondering as I got caught up in the intensity created in this intimate space, so much so that I could not even take notes.
The designer has delivered a cosy cottage and accurate millinery work rooms with detailed machinery. The paraded hats are extreme, colourful using net and feathers, each one outstanding, but sick. When, in the final scene we see the adult Joan in dirty and dishevelled army clothes, we remember her as a child sweet and clean, in her white nightie. Innocence and experience.
Caryl Churchill's imaginative writing has found a brilliant director in Stephen Daldry, who, the night I went, was modestly checking tickets! If theatre's mission is to create images and moments that stay with you, then Far Away succeeds. Who could ever forget the desperate parade of the excessively hatted chain gang?
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