I recently attended a playwriting masterclass with Jane Bodie (it was on structure and it was fantastic) and, as part of the class, we read Caryl Churchill’s Far Away. It was a glorious play to analyse structurally and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
On the surface, Far Away is a piece of absurdist writing in three distinct sections, each progressively more bizarre. Beneath the surface it’s a play about the brutality and arbitrary nature of war and our complicity in accepting the unacceptable. At the start of the play we see a young girl, Joan, who can’t sleep talking to her aunt, Harper. It appears domestic and ordinary but is anything but.
HARPER: Do you miss your dog?
JOAN: I miss the cat I think.
HARPER: Does it sleep on your bed?
JOAN: No because I chase it off. But it gets in if the door’s not properly shut.
As Joan talks we realise that she’s witnessed something terrible and that her aunt is lying to cover up the atrocities. This is brilliant and chilling writing. The suspense builds as we discover the child heard a scream, “an owl” says her aunt, that she saw her uncle bundling a person into a shed, “that’s just friends of his your uncle was having a little party with” says the aunt.
JOAN: If it’s a party, why was there so much blood?
HARPER: There isn’t any blood.
As each horror is revealed by the child, the aunt has an answer for it. For an audience, your mind is racing with the images of what has just happened offstage and what it really was that Joan saw. Are her uncle and aunt part of a people smuggling operation? Is this a play about Nazi Germany? Were the people in the lorry refugees? Were they being taken to a concentration camp? But the child is too young to ask the questions we want asked and she seems to believe her aunt’s answers, so we’re left with a terrible dis-ease, but no idea of what’s really happening.
The second section is set in a hat shop several years later, on Joan’s first day at her new job. She and her workmate Todd are making huge, extravagant hats for a parade. They have to be completed in a week. They appear to be working for a huge bureaucracy or perhaps for the state and what they are creating are works of colourful art to be worn by prisoners in a parade. Churchill stipulates that there should be an actual parade and includes the most bizarre stage direction in her list of characters: “The Parade: five is too few and twenty better than ten. A hundred?” We discover that the prisoners were paraded in the hats on their way to their execution.
JOAN: It seems so sad to burn them with the bodies.
TODD: No I think that’s the joy of it. The hat are ephemeral. It’s like a metaphor for something or other.
Neither Joan nor Todd seem at all disturbed by the idea that dozens of prisoners are killed every week and burnt – it’s the loss of their art that matters more. Big breath. Is this Churchill talking about those of us who make art, see art and talk about it while there are atrocities committed all over the world by governments, terrorists and dictators?
The third section takes place back at the aunt’s home several years later when Todd and Joan are married. They have become politicised, but then the whole world has. Even animals, children under five and insects are taking sides.
HARPER: The cats have come in on the side of the French.
The first time you read or see this on stage, it’s a WTF? moment. Did Churchill really write that? Yes, she did and it gets more bizarre by the sentence.
TODD: Do we include mallards in this?
HARPER: Mallards are not a good waterbird. They commit rape, and they’re on the side of the elephants and the Koreans. But crocodiles are always in the wrong.
Joan has gone AWOL from whatever force or side she is on to spend a day with Todd.
JOAN: Of course birds saw me, everyone saw me walking along but nobody knew why, I could have been on a mission, everyone’s moving about and no one knows why, and in fact I killed two cats and a child under five so it wasn’t that different from a mission […]
The play seems mad, but then so does war. Choosing sides based on geography, skin colour, religion or politics is just as crazy and that seems to be what Churchill wanted us to consider when she wrote Far Away.
Publisher: Nick Hern Books
Cast: 2F, 1M and a parade of prisoners