arts & books: The mother of reinvention

For three decades, Caryl Churchill has been turning British theatre on its head. Yet, for the past three years, she has gone to ground. With a sudden spate of revivals and new work in the offing, the playwright granted David Benedict a rare interview to explain why
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The Independent Culture
If you could stop MORI polling people about their voting intentions for a few seconds and persuade them to ask people to name this country's greatest living dramatist, most people would probably plump for Harold Pinter or David Hare. Regardless of their incontestable stature - plays as good as Old Times or Racing Demon don't fall exactly from the trees - a substantial body of opinion would place Caryl Churchill at the top of the list. Only last week, Mark Ravenhill, author of last year's surprise hit Shopping and Fucking wrote: "I read Top Girls at least once a year and I weep. One day, I think, one day I'll write something as good."

For those unlucky enough never to have seen Churchill's definitive play about the 1980s - a dazzlingly dramatic and politically astute analysis of what it took to rise to the top - which The Guardian awarded the backhanded compliment of being "the best play ever from a woman dramatist"- there's some late news just in. It's unofficial, unannounced and unbelievably overdue, but 1997 is the year of Caryl Churchill. Earlier this year, the National Theatre's tour of her 1976 play set around the English Civil War, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, opened at the Cottesloe; Cloud Nine, her magnificently funny and sharp-witted modern classic about patriarchy, patriotism and sexual politics is back in a major revival at the Old Vic; Hotel, her latest collaborative piece for the trailblazing dance / music- theatre company Second Stride opens in London next week; and her new double- bill Blue Heart will open at the Edinburgh Festival in August. All of which goes some way to making up for three barren years.

Her astonishingly ambitious The Skriker, a vast social panorama with Kathryn Hunter as a shape-shifting underworld creature, which took Churchill years to write, opened at the National in 1994 to the bafflement of many, who were misled by the production. Others hailed it as a masterpiece. But since then, apart from her translation of Seneca's Thyestes for the Royal Court, the rest has been silence. You could be forgiven for thinking that she'd given up writing. You'd be right. Happily, though, she's had a change of heart; yet the playwright continues to be elusive, shying away from the media circus surrounding the business of theatre. Like much of her finest work, Top Girls was directed by Max Stafford-Clark. He deals with her reticence very simply: "She really wants the work to express what she's doing."

Fair enough. This isn't the disdainful aloofness of some theatrical grande dame. In fact, when she finally accedes to my request to meet during rehearsals for Hotel, she's thoughtful and generous and anxious to dispel any suggestion of frosty, lofty indifference. She apologises for seeming "difficult" but points out the absurdity of our meeting. "It's an odd kind of conversation," she muses, "there's more going on than just two people in a room. You're doing your job. It's going to be read by a lot of people, and when it's printed, it has a definitive quality which then gets quoted back at you 15 years later. It's also not a conversation because it's so one way..." And then, all of a sudden, the guarded nervousness gives way to laughter. "Never mind," she says, the shutters opening to reveal a welcoming smile leaping across her face.

She was an only child. Her father, a cartoonist, and her mother, a fashion model, moved from London to Montreal when she was 10, and she began writing short stories and producing living-room pantomimes. At 14, she wrote a full-length children and ponies book and was also improvising plays with a friend. "We would work out in some detail what was going to happen and we would play it, and, if we hadn't quite liked how it went, we would play it again." During her time at Oxford at the end of the Fifties, she won first prize at the National Student Drama Festival with her play Downstairs. Her first work to receive a professional production was The Ants, a radio play, a form which suited her because there was a market for it (and no fringe theatre in the early Sixties) and because she was raising her children.

The (then) estimable theatre journal Plays and Players declared Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, in which different actors played the same character, to be "one of the finest pieces of English playwrighting for years", but the big break came three years later in 1979 with Cloud Nine. Like Light Shining, it was written for Max Stafford-Clark's company Joint Stock and its dynamite cast (including Julie Covington, Antony Sher and Miriam Margolyes) who were wittily embracing gender-bending long before anyone dreamed of the term. Joint Stock pioneered a collaborative approach to playwriting, something which has had a marked effect on Churchill and scores of writers since. "It was very exhilarating because it was a completely different way of working." Wasn't it scary giving up authorial control? "Yes, a little bit, but there's a misconception sometimes that the actual writing process becomes collaborative. Some companies create wholly devised plays but I've never gone that far into collaboration." Joint Stock's method was based on an extended workshop / research period, after which the writer would go away and write. "And then there is more rewriting in rehearsal because you've got a group of people you work with and trust. And they trust you because you've all shared that research time. I would be much more open to changing things than if it had been something I had written alone."

Since then, Churchill's work has split between plays created on her own and those that have grown out of collaboration, notably the dance/ theatre works The Lives of the Great Poisoners and the forthcoming two-part Hotel, both written with long-term co-conspirators choreographer Ian Spink and composer Orlando Gough for Second Stride. "Hotel started from an idea I had of something which might work as an opera with Orlando, which was of eight lots of people in eight rooms, which would appear on stage as one room." Eyebrows might be raised at the idea of a dance company presenting an opera, but if anyone can pull it off, it's these three whose experience, versatility and sheer success rate with formal experiment is matched by no one in this country except Lloyd Newson and DV8.

"She reinvents herself every time," says Stafford-Clark, who points to Churchill's constant formal experimentation in the creation of overlapping dialogue in Top Girls or her comedy of City greed, Serious Money, written entirely in (deeply unfashionable) verse. Despite British Telecom's refusal to allow the use of its phones on stage ("This is a production with which no public company would wish to be associated"), it transferred to the West End and became a smash hit. Stafford-Clark, however, admits to finding her challenge terrifying. "She asks you to do things that haven't been done before. You think, `Maybe it won't work, and we can't do it'." He obviously thrives on the terror, though, and you can hear the thrill in his voice as he prepares to team up again for Blue Heart. Other playwrights are more famous, he concedes, but then counters: "Her influence has been enormous and not just on other writers. You go into schools and you tell them `We're doing some plays by Caryl Churchill' and that she might be involved and teachers faint and genuflect. She shaped the way they teach and think about drama."

When Churchill began writing, virtually the only other major female dramatist was Agatha Christie. Perhaps her most significant move was the shift away from the semi-autobiographical stance adopted by women novelists. Theatre is a much more public artform and Churchill has taken that to heart, making ideas, emotions and structure indivisible. I point out that almost none of her plays follow the traditional route of the journey of a single protagonist, an idea that surprises her. She mulls it over. "When I was working with Joint Stock, I think there was a strong anti-sentimental feeling about in theatre. There was an attraction to making continuities with dramatic ideas rather than going a long way down an emotional journey... which didn't mean there wouldn't be very emotional things." That's certainly borne out by the poignant final image in Tom Cairns's new production of Cloud Nine, where the mother confronts the ghostly image of her younger self.

With all this year's burst of dramatic activity, can it be true that, three years ago, she stopped writing? She tenses up again. Then relents. "Oh, I don't mind..." She runs a long hand through a mane of silver hair. "I just got bored with it. That feeling of `Was I going to start thinking about another play just because I was a playwright?' I've had it before. I remember that, in 1978, I decided I definitely wasn't going to be a writer any more. It took me about four months to get out of my head the idea that I was a writer and once I'd done it, of course, I started writing again." Her laughter fills the chilly rehearsal room. She looks at me, confidingly, her gaunt, gravely beautiful head resting on one hand. "I think I wanted to wait until I missed it."

`Cloud Nine': Old Vic, London (0171-928 7616) to 26 Apr; `Hotel': the Place, London from Tues-Sat (0171-387 0161) and the Manchester Dance House 2-3 May (0161-237 9753)