Award winning playwright, Caryl Churchill, is no stranger to feminist themes or highlighting abuses to power – be it ecological, environmental or societal. Her particular brand of postmodernist theatre has been pushing boundaries for years and this, her 2016 work, Escaped Alone, is no different.
Coming to Red Stitch early June, Escaped Alone gives us a compact, curt – sometimes brutal – exposé on our deepest human fears. Fantasy and current politics assemble in a play where female chat is paramount and Churchill’s language is sublime.
For director (and writer) Jenny Kemp, the opportunity to direct was one she could not allow to pass by. Drawn by Churchill’s septuagenarians – and her own impending birthday – Kemp’s interest became personal.
“Churchill was 79 when she wrote Escaped Alone,” says Kemp. “This year I turned 70. I was fascinated that her and her four female characters were all over 70. I was interested in the lens of an older woman, especially that of Caryl Churchill.”
Kemp also acknowledges that Churchill is always concerned with both the personal and the political and adds that in Escaped alone this dynamic is particularly palpable. She was drawn also to the urgency of the title Escaped Alone, for which Churchill references The Book of Job & Moby Dick. Full quote: I only am escaped alone to tell thee.
Churchill gives us a female view of the apocalypse…with tea. The play has heart, soul, intimacy and truth. Kemp outlines the themes as: our relationship with the planet; climate change/extinction; the destructive power of capitalism, greed and inequality; our relationship with technology; rage and terror and efficacy of female empathy and connectedness. A rich potion indeed and Churchill knows how to stir the cauldron.
An intimate, all-female cast is something Kemp is quite at home with, revealing that being one of a family of four girls has, no doubt, laid the foundations for this preference.
“In Escaped Alone Churchill gives focus to the way women chat, the function of that chat, the need to stay connected, to be heard and witnessed and to have empathy for each other,” she says. “I have found that with an all women cast these feeling tend to be more likely to prevail.”
Kemp enjoys working with small casts because it enables more time for deeper work on text and image. Kemp admits that she likes to work slowly so a smaller cast enables deeper connections. However, she also enjoys working with a larger cast – In 2012 she directed Churchill’s Top Girls for MTC, and many years earlier Mouthful of Birds, both of which, she says, were very satisfying to work on.
Reminiscent of Red Stitch’s last offering, Wakey Wakey, Churchill gives us a tour de force of a tale in around 60 minutes. For Kemp, Churchill’s short, sharp and elliptical style is very exciting, asking a lot of the performers and the audience.
“Churchill’s texts are very compact, each line is very full and often only the tip of the iceberg,” she says. “Her texts demand both the performers and the audience to step up, to think faster, to make leaps. That’s a good feeling when it works – it stimulates and challenges. The drawbacks are if one doesn’t step up.”
As a director, Kemp’s focus has been on the importance of our relationship with our inner world, the natural world and the civilized world and working creatively with the disjunction that exists between these worlds. But, she admits, this focus has been shifting as we become increasingly aware of the extremity of our alienation of and from the natural world. Churchill, she says, is utterly aware of this danger.
Red Stitch takes great pride in its mission statement of enriching the craft of acting and script development in this country. The intimacy of Red Stitch is also an enticement to directors such as Kemp who acknowledges that a small independent company has many advantages. “The size of audience at Red Stitch really enables an intimate relationship with the audience, which is really nice to work with,” she says. “And the ensemble at Red Stitch is a group of people who are there because they love theatre. I have really enjoyed working with the company and felt very supported each time.”
Kemp is also grateful to Red Stitch for giving her the opportunity to direct both: Escaped Alone and Splendor by Abi Morgan (another great female English playwright) which are both terrific scripts which she has really enjoyed working on
Red Stitch presents the Australian premiere of Escaped Alone – three old friends and a neighbour – tea and catastrophe. For Kemp, a must see show Caryl Churchill – after 79 years of making theatre – boiling it down to 1 hour of concise highly pertinent theatre – what else is there to say?
June 2 – 30