Whistler in the Dark on Caryl Churchill

by Bryce Lambert on February 2, 2012

There are just two more days to catch Whistler in the Dark’s two play Caryl Churchill lineup. Fen and A Number are just the kind of work one expects to see produced by the Whistlers and I don’t think anybody else is as well equipped to handle Churchill’s complex narratives, sense of mystery, and large themes. Fen is the superior work and here, under Meg Taintor’s flawless direction of a fantastic ensemble (Aimee Rose Ranger, Jen O’Connor, Becca A. Lewis, Lorna Nogueira, Anna Waldron, and Mac Young), the Whistlers draw out Churchill’s themes of broken homes, change, generation gaps, unhappiness, happiness, child abuse, oppression, and contemporary serfdom in Thatcherite England. Spanning generations and English country castes, Churchill’s multi-generational story exists on a dirt potato patch of a set that seems as much a metaphysical and ghostly plane as it does a section of real and gritty earth, as actors kick dust up into the tight space of the Factory Theatre. And it’s due to this excellent production that this effect comes off so well.

Fen‘s scenes are loosely joined together, depicting a small community of mostly female farm workers–not to say there aren’t men, Churchill’s just not that interested in them. Despite the text’s broad generational reach, little about Fen feels epic or grand in proportion. Instead, thanks to double casting of the play’s secondary characters and structure of isolated scenes, Fen maintains an intimate feel, pulling us closely into its individual scenes and slowly building an overall mood and story arc. Double casting is a practicality here, but it’s also, in a soft stroke of meta-textuality, responsible for cementing the bonds and interconnectedness between the female generations, as one actress plays both village girl and village grandmother and another plays the lead and a century old ghost. This gives us a sense of timelessness that’s essential to the play and this village society that’s undergoing economic change, without really changing at all.

Anna Waldron and Mac Young in Fen

The female lead Val (played with a lot of depth by Aimee Rose Ranger) is motivated by a desire for change, to break free from her laborer life and pursue half minted dreams of moving to London and being with her lover Frank, even if it means leaving her children. While her neighbors medicate themselves with evangelism and Valium, she only finds satisfaction in fleeting moments spent dancing with Frank. Val eventually concludes that death is her only means of escape, and it comes, in a murder suicide perpetrated with Frank, that seems like a perversion of Romeo and Juliet. And although her death ties her to the dusty soil of this East Anglia fen, as she was in life with her work of clearing stones from fields and digging potatoes, she appears somewhat content in her ghostly reincarnation.

Fen has a clear setting in the eighties and the Whistlers have keyed us into this with the appropriate sweaters and between-scene music like Joy Division, but it’s important to not see the play as a tragic political narrative belonging to a particular decade–a story of bra burning or a workers’ revolution. What makes Fen so strong and what Taintor and this excellent cast has pulled off so well, is this kind of loose temporality, where the current political conditions are practically inconsequential. In the end, it’s a rather grim thesis Churchill conveys, but there’s something really beautiful about Fen‘s presentation of psychic connections and structure that takes us so deep, without giving up a sense of mystery and the perspective that we’re only seeing a piece of a story in a larger arc, that’s tied to the land and almost as old as it.

Danny Bryck and Mark Cohen in A Number

By comparison, Churchill’s terse 2002 play A Number is a weaker work. Its plot is built around a sci-fi hypothetical situation where Bernard discovers he has ‘a number’ of clones walking around. At the surface, A Number questions notions of Self and nature versus nurture and so on, but Churchill is far more interested in child abuse and neglect and the language used to consider Self, when the discussion is tainted with lies, regret, denial, and resentment. Like Fen, A Number is heavily laden with mystery and a narrative that’s deliberately confusing. Structured across five scenes where the three ‘versions’ of Bernard are in conversation with their ‘father’ Salter, the play slowly pulls together its story of engineered life that came about through tragedy and ends in another. In short, Salter has Bernard, Salter’s wife dies, Bernard is neglected and taken by social services as a toddler, Salter clones Bernard for a do-over and raises him well enough, scientists clone Bernard in secret, the first Bernard kills his first clone, and Salter meets one of the scientist’s secret clones.

The acting is solid, with Danny Bryck hopping between three versions of Bernard, and Mark Cohen (Salter) gradually letting his character develop by letting truths about his past trickle out. Both have an easy time with the text’s complex dialogue that’s rife with fragments and stutters. It’s not naturalistic. The dialogue is actually very much theatrical, but scripted to show how some things exceed the limitations of language. And again, that’s not just the linguistic conundrums one runs into when one is talking about clones, their clones, and the fact that they’re a clone. Churchill starts the play there, but shifts to ideas that don’t depend on a sci-fi plot device; murder and child abuse and even just expressing something personal about oneself. Director Jason King Jones has done well at ensuring tense, well blocked, and engrossing conversations between Bernard and Salter. But, in the end, this production is a little too vague on its plot and more concerned with its dramatic aesthetic than communicating Churchill’s conceptual content.

Whistler in the Dark will continue its season with Craig Wright’s Recent Tragic Events in March and Trojan Women in May.

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