Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. review – Caryl Churchill's compelling quartet

Royal Court, London
The latest from the daring playwright is a fascinating four-part exploration into our appetite for blood-soaked myth

Every Caryl Churchill play is an experiment with form. Her latest work comprises four pieces that get progressively longer as the evening continues. While each has its own distinct identity, the unifying factor is the human need for myths, legends and stories – and the imminence, as well as the immanence, of death. Together they make a strangely compelling quartet.

The last piece, Imp, is much the longest and mixes the funny and macabre. It presents us with a couple of ageing cousins who live together in fractious harmony and whose sedate existence is governed by a dark secret. Jimmy is a depressive who finds solace in running and who recounts overheard stories that echo King Lear, Hamlet and Oedipus Rex.

Meanwhile the chair-bound Dot turns out to be a former nurse imprisoned for abusing a patient. Her real trust, however, resides in a bottle-imp that she treats with superstitious reverence. The power of the piece lies in its suggestion that even a life of studied ordinariness conceals untold mysteries.

Opaque … Glass.
Opaque … Glass. Photograph: Johan Persson

But, in James Macdonald’s production, much of the attraction lies in the extraordinary performances. Deborah Findlay as Dot suggests a cosy aunt given to sudden murderous rages and unexpected recollections of sex. Toby Jones as Jimmy, full of nervously anxious smiles, has the air of an overgrown child and Tom Mothersdale and Louisa Harland look in to great effect as the old couple’s young victimised visitors.

The hunger for myths shadowed by murder also lies at the heart of Bluebeard. In this the legendary wife-killer is treated as if he were a suburbanite about whom a quartet of friends and neighbours reminisce. One sees him as a classic psychopath: another casually remarks “he played the piano so beautifully”. Watching the play reminds one of Hannah Arendt’s phrase about “the banality of evil” but the piece, expertly played by Findlay, Jones, Sarah Niles and Sule Rimi, confirms Churchill’s conviction that we are all haunted by a fascination with bloodshot fables.

The point is made even more strongly in Kill, where Mothersdale, representing the gods and sitting atop a cloud, gives us a potted version of the Greek myths reminding us that western civilisation is founded on horrific stories of homicide, incest, cannibalism and cyclical revenge.

Tom Mothersdale and Caelan Edie in Kill.
Tom Mothersdale and Caelan Edie in Kill. Photograph: Johan Persson

But possibly the strangest piece is the opening one, in which a girl made of glass comes into collision with the all-too-real world of child abuse. Despite the heroine’s transparency, I found the piece somewhat opaque but that is my only criticism of an endlessly intriguing evening.

Miriam Buether’s design frames the four pieces inside a bulb-studded proscenium-arch and Macdonald’s agile production interweaves the plays with displays of juggling and acrobatics. But that seems highly appropriate for a work that is about theatre itself and about our eternal desire to be entertained by stories that combine the mythical, the mundane and the gory.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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