A CurtainUp London Review
Three acts feature Joan firstly, as a child, secondly as an apprentice milliner and finally returning to the farmhouse of the first scene as a mature woman. There are sinister aspects to this play not least the death parade featuring exquisite hats modelled by people of all ages wearing grey dungarees with number stamped on labels sewn on them. We hear in the middle act set in the millinery workshop that each hat will be destroyed when the wearer is put to death. It is obscene not most importantly for the loss of life but for the expensive display prior to death. That it is a parade means that there are people there to watch it.
The actors in this parade besides wearing a hat feature an expression of despair and dismay. There are children in the parade and the sight of them is harrowing. The juxtaposition of cruelty and beautiful hats is unsettling
I saw Far Away in 2000 at the Royal Court in the small theatre upstairs. There were scenes in it I remember clearly and inevitably the impact of seeing this play in 2020 is reduced for me even after two decades.
The first scene has the child, Young Joan (Sophia Ally or Abbiegail Mills) staying at her aunt Harper (Jessica Hynes) 's house. The child asks questions about the many sinister things she sees happening and her aunt tries to explain them with a series of lies. The aunt says the screaming of a person is just an owl screeching but when the child has seen has more serious events with blood and babies she uses secrecy as the excuse for not answering. Like the child, we the audience are kept in the dark.
The second act sees two milliners building hats with more and more extravagant detailing while the experienced milliner Todd (Simon Manyonda) explains what will be the destination of the hats to Joan (Aisling Loftus). At this point Joan is relatively untroubled and involved with the skills needed in millinery. Fortunately there is a scene change between each hat getting more of its finishing touches.
The final act sees Joan (Aisling Loftus) world weary, dirty and in camouflage clothes back in the house of the first scene as they discuss a war which involves the whole world, the animals and even the elements. The dialogue sounds incredible and jokey as we hear, for instance, that the rhinoceroses have joined up with the Venezuelans, the elephants and the crocodiles are joining in. A line towards the end of the play tells us that darkness is going to be mobilised.
Was Caryl Churchill writing about climate change two decades ago? The collage and patchwork that Harper is working on with her embroidery skills in the first act is seen muddy, trampled on and torn in Act Three. The impermanence of beauty and the futility of toil.
Many of the scenes changes are initially in darkness and then we see the foxed, mirrored box and hear loud discordant sounds. Lyndsey Turner's plays often feature boxes and compartments.
This play is a must for Cary Churchill fans and drama students but may leave many of the audience baffled. It feels like the days when art galleries were full of the outrageous, the inexplicable designed to shock us out of complacency.
For my review in 2000, under Elyse Sommer's review in New York in 2002 go here.
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Written by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Lindsey Turner
Starring: Jessica Hynes, Simon Manyonda, Aisling Loftus, Sophia Ally/Abbiegail Mills
Designer: Lizzie Clachan
Lighting Design: Peter Mumford
Sound Designer: Christopher Shutt
Running time: 40 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 3282 3808
Booking to 4th April 2020
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 20th February 2020 matinee performance at the Donmar Warehouse 41 Earlham street, London WC2H 9LX (Tube: Covent Garden)
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