Like Beckett and Pinter, Caryl Churchill is writing fugues in old age (she’s 77). Far Away, A Number, and now Escaped Alone: these are all exquisitely crafted contrapuntal compositions that work much more through suggestion than statement, interweaving themes of global disaster, the banality of the everyday, and the mutability of memory and time. The plays are luminous, reverberant, cunning, but they can also be frustrating because they are only obliquely political. They flash topicality (environmental disaster, cloning) only to veer off into surrealism. It helps to remember that their real subject is the fear and anxiety beneath what we see and hear.
Most of Escaped Alone consists of four 70-something women sitting in chairs and chatting over tea in a small suburban backyard—rendered with wonderfully spare serenity by Miriam Buether in James Macdonald’s Royal Court production. They gab about grandchildren, insomnia, shops, pets—that sort of thing. Yet each also soliloquizes at one point about a distinctive distress or phobia. Sally (Deborah Findlay), an affable former health attendant, is terrified of cats. Lena (Kika Markham), the optimist in the group, is an agoraphobe who can’t even get herself to Tesco. Vi (June Watson), a cranky former hairdresser, served six years for killing her husband. And Mrs. Jarrett (Linda Bassett) simply repeats the phrase “terrible rage” twenty-five times.
Mrs. Jarrett serves as the play’s narrator of sorts. She’s the only one who directly addresses the audience, speaking at the beginning and end and between the eight brief scenes (the whole play is 50 minutes). She tells us at the start that she joined the others, mere acquaintances, after seeing an open door in the fence. Periodically the stage goes black and we see her standing in a black void framed by crackling red coils that look like space-heater elements as she describes horrific, decidedly bizarre, and mutually exclusive catastrophes, all in the past tense.
A few samples: “Four hundred thousand tons of rock paid for by senior executives split off the hillside to smash through the roofs, each fragment onto the designated child’s head.” “The chemicals leaked through cracks in the money.” “The hunger began when eighty percent of food was diverted to tv programmes.” “The illness started when children drank sugar developed from monkeys.” “Four cases of arson by children and politicians, three of spontaneous combustion of the markets, two of sunshine, one supposed by believers to be a punishment by God for gender dysphoria.”
These reports are clearly as much about the creation of disaster scenarios as they are about disaster itself. The creativity and humor in them stand out as much as their underlying fear or the way they amplify the breaches to tranquility in the soliloquies. Churchill’s shadow subject here is the pleasure taken in catastrophe—an emotion all four splendid actresses make vivid and palpable.
The title Escaped Alone comes from a phrase in the Book of Job that Melville used near the end of Moby-Dick: “I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” It’s the testimony of a survivor, and presumably Mrs. Jarrett is this survivor, the one spared by god, or chance, to report on a traumatic ordeal in which everyone else perished. Her chief survival skill, Churchill suggests—and perhaps ours too—is making prophetic poetry from her own sensationalized imaginings.
Photos by Richard Termine