Prepare to be provoked. caryl churchill is back. – the new york times

On a recent trip to London, I attempted to arrange an interview with Caryl Churchill, who alongside Tom Stoppard is considered the greatest living English playwright. I didn’t expect to get an answer (Ms. Churchill hasn’t granted a real interview since the 1990s) and indeed, I did not get one. Trying to obtain an audience with her is like trying to obtain one with Thomas Pynchon or Cormac McCarthy. She maintains a Sphinx-like silence.

If you want to absorb a bit of Ms. Churchill’s London, however, the place to linger is the venerable Royal Court Theater, where many of her plays had their debuts. The Royal Court is a playwright’s arena, a word-drunk place, dedicated to new writing.


John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger” (1956) had its premiere there. So did Ann Jellicoe’s “The Knack” (1962), and Ms. Churchill’s own “Top Girls” (1982).

As I wandered the Royal Court, alone and with a guide, and saw a smart new play there (Thomas Eccleshare’s “Instructions for Correct Assembly”), I sensed that, handed a time machine, the play I’d most want to beam myself backward to witness on opening night might well be “Top Girls.”

In it, Ms. Churchill throws the greatest and most surreal dinner party of all time. She gathers around a table eminent women from various points in history, including the explorer Isabella Bird, the Japanese Emperor’s courtesan and memoirist Lady Nijo, the subject of the Bruegel painting “Dulle Griet” (also known as Mad Meg) and Pope Joan, a woman thought to have been pope while disguised as a man from 855-858. Photo

The critic Robert Brustein remarked that if moviegoing is a solitary act, theatergoing is a communal one. Few make this more apparent than does Ms. Churchill. For one thing, she has been known to squeeze a lot of human beings into her plays. One of her most intricate, “Love and Information,” which opened at the Royal Court in 2012 and ran Off Broadway two years later has 100 characters (!) played by 16 actors.

Take, for example, Ms. Churchill’s 1976 play “Light Shining in Buckinghamshire,” which is now in previews and opens May 7 at New York Theater Workshop. (It’s the eighth production of her work presented at the Off Broadway theater, and the first play it has ever done twice.) The director is Rachel Chavkin, who received a 2017 Tony Award nomination for “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.”

“Buckinghamshire” is a difficult, fervent, political play, set in England in the mid-1600s, and it’s about a time when a new kind of governance seemed possible. King Charles I has been imprisoned for corruption; royalists have fled their estates. Factions of Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians are trying to draft a new constitution. Continue reading the main story

Into this debate plunge the members of three new radical groups: the Diggers, the Ranters and the Levellers. Ms. Churchill’s play picks up from there. It takes its title from a Digger pamphlet titled “More Light Shining in Buckinghamshire,” which included this line: “You great Curmudgeons, you hang a man for stealing, when you yourselves have stolen from your brethren all land and creatures.” It’s a play about bravery and optimism.

Ms. Churchill did not compose this play in remote isolation. Instead she ran a three-week workshop with the actors during which, she has written, “through talk, reading, games and improvisations, we tried to get closer to the issues and the people. During the next nine weeks I wrote a script, and went on working on it with the company during the six-week rehearsal period.”

This collaborative method is part of what appeals to James C. Nicola, the longtime artistic director of New York Theater Workshop, about Ms. Churchill’s writing. He calls “Light Shining in Buckinghamshire” perhaps his favorite play of all time.

After college she wrote radio dramas for the BBC, married a barrister and had three sons. She later told an interviewer: “I was fed up with the situation I found myself in in the 1960s. I didn’t like being a barrister’s wife and going out to dinner with other professional people and dealing with middle class life. It seemed claustrophobic. Having started out with undefined idealistic assumptions about the kind of life we could lead, we had drifted into something quite conventional and middle class and boring. By the mid-1960s, I had this gloomy feeling that when the Revolution came I would be swept away.”

Her early plays included “Owners” (1972), about landlords and greed, which had its premiere at the Royal Court, and “Buckinghamshire.” Her breakthrough arrived with “Cloud Nine” (1979), a play in which one act is set in Victorian times in colonial Africa and the other in a present day London park. It’s a ferocious work that employs cross-gender casting and is about, among other things, sexual stereotypes.

“The play is hopelessly ineffective on every level,” Mr. Evans wrote. “Churchill must be the most overrated writer the English theater has produced. She has virtually no dramatic skills. She can knock out humourless preachy rhetoric by the yard but as for the rest of it she hasn’t a clue.” He was just getting going.

“Buckinghamshire” is a waterfall of antique language, and Ms. Chavkin wants to make sure that language is heard. “We’re working to make the language chewy rather than floaty,” she said. “We want it to sound not like Shakespeare, but like something you could hear in a bar in Bushwick.”

The production features several actors with disabilities. “This is a play about collective liberation, and features a slew of characters who are fighting for acknowledgment, equality, and liberty,” Ms. Chavkin explained. “So the humans in the cast should reflect and embody that as powerfully as possible.”

Another unusual feature of her production is a captioning board, visible at the back of the stage, for the hearing-impaired. Others may also find it useful at times, like supertitles during an opera. The language is indeed chewy, but it is a lot to bite off.

At the Royal Court, Ms. Churchill’s language lingers in the air. To stand in that theater is to be reminded of something the playwright said about “Buckinghamshire,” which is that if the men and women in it are historically remote, “their voices are surprisingly close to us.”