It’s quite something when a short 45-minute play manages to split the audience right down the middle, is accused of out-staying its welcome and leads to passionate disagreements on social media. So I guess it’s congratulations, of sorts, to Here We Go, the new play from Caryl Churchill that has opened at the National Theatre.
Only, I suspect, this play isn’t deliberately trying to be controversial. (Some do try to get this kind of reaction). Instead such a response represents a lack of success in conveying the emotional impact of this examination on mortality.
You’d expect a play that looks to dramatise our hopes and our fears about life, death and the afterlife to have a profound emotional impact. Clearly for half the audience, this production failed to achieve that. Some even hated it.
Well I didn’t hate it. But though I can see its flaws, I was moved by this production. But not until the very end.
Caryl has written Here We Go as a triptych, three scenes whose possible connections only become apparent at the finale.
In the first scene we’re at a funeral. Whose, we don’t know. But the anonymous mourners have nothing but warm feelings for the now departed, and they only break away from these fond reminisces to confide to us the causes of their deaths in years to come.
But this scene doesn’t really work. It’s poorly executed by the actors who seem unable to effortlessly work with Caryl’s familiar dialogue style of fragmented, unfinished sentences. As a result, there’s little flow, and the scene ends up feeling rather awkward and stilted.
The next scene is the complete opposite – a vibrant monologue from Patrick Godfrey who emerges, stripped to the waist, from the darkness. He is dead but where is he? What is it he sees? And is this anything like what he imagined?
His thoughts tumble over each other. Engaging and confused. Finally we have flow and energy – complemented by some clever production techniques from director Dominic Cooke.
But it’s the last scene that divides the most.
So let’s get this out the way first – I loved this scene. For me, this was a huge risk – and it paid off. For a lot of others, it was the final denouement to a dreadful experience.
Patrick Godfrey returns. Only he isn’t dead but alive. We’ve gone back in time. Here, Patrick is a desperately frail old man with no one in his life other than a nurse. No sign of those friends who may have been speaking about him so fondly at his funeral. No sign of affection or warmth.
Instead Patrick and his nurse (Hazel Holder) run through a seemingly endless loop of routine – the nurse helping Patrick get dressed, then as soon a s that is done, the nurse helps Patrick to get undressed. And then it starts again.
The pace is glacial – deliberately. And the process seems arduous – deliberately. But this is why I liked this scene.
The sad decay of age, the depressing state of our care for our elderly, the tragedy of how the bright spirit from the previous scene was trapped within a crumbling body… It all felt desperately sad. Where were his supposed friends from his funeral? Where were they in these, his lonely last days. We can all care when it’s too late – it’s about being there when it matters.
All these feelings and thoughts were racing through me as the cycle of dressing and undressing began again. But there was no way I could ignore the restlessness around me – the shifting in the seats, the audible sighs, or the glances to watches (people still wear watches??). This scene grabbed me but it lost most of the audience.
So on leaving the Lyttleton, I felt very much in the minority. “Turgid” “awful” these were the words being exchanged by others. “The worst play I’ve ever seen here” was another (I’m assuming they hadn’t yet been next door to the Dorfman for Evening at the Talk House) plus a quite dramatic “I’ve seen cadavers with more life than that.”
Not a resounding success by any means then, but it does mean the NT is having a tricky moment – mixed reviews at best for the plays currently showing across their stages. Will wonder.land turn that around? We shall see.
National Theatre, London to December 19, 2015
Image Credits: Photographer Keith Pattison