Caryl Churchill: One of a kind

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The Independent Culture

Whenever I think about the plays of Caryl Churchill - this country's most consistently original, inventive and self-renewing dramatist - I am reminded of a brilliant insight by the poet/dramatist Ted Hughes. He wrote that the breakthroughs in art come when we manage to outwit the secret policemen in our heads. Though this is a tricky activity, Caryl Churchill's work makes it look as achievable as it is essential. She has always contrived to give the slip to the forces of self-censorship lurking within the imagination and to smuggle herself straight to territory that it would be a painful, arduous business for most other dramatists to reach. Indeed, one is tempted to say that, in her case, the secret policemen are probably double agents who are also on her payroll. Peter Brook, who directed the French-language premiere in Paris of her highly political Far Away (first seen at the Royal Court in 2000), applauded, in a pithy programme note, her ability "to penetrate into the darkest zones of daily reality where la vie intime overlaps with universal chaos".

This gift looks set to be on display again in Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?, her new piece which opens next week in a main stage production at the Royal Court directed by one of her frequent collaborators, James Macdonald. The wife of a lawyer and the mother of three sons (and therefore a hopeful feminist who has never thought men a lost cause), she combined running a home with writing plays for radio and so had a lot of experience when she came to write for the stage. Her connection with the Court was sealed by her ventures in the Seventies and Eighties with Max Stafford-Clark, who introduced her to the Joint Stock way of working - collective research on a subject by the entire company followed by Churchill'smoulding it with the power of the solitary imagination. This process culminated in her boisterous play about Thatcherite City traders, Serious Money, which transferred to the West End and was also a hit on Broadway.

There was a widely reported hiccup in the pre-planning of the festivities celebrating the Royal Court's 50th birthday in 2006 when Churchill pulled the plug on a projected revival of Cloud Nine, her now-classic 1979 play about gender, sexuality and imperialism. It was suspected that Churchill had withdrawn permission for the revival because she thought the Court was betraying its own values by inviting the rich and not notably leftward-leaning Tom Stoppard and Trevor Nunn, neither of whom had worked at the Sloane Square theatre, to contribute to the anniversary celebration with the premiere there of Rock'n'Roll. The theatre understandably tried to quash this perception by disclosing that Churchill is in the throes of writing a new play and that, when she is in this state, she cannot cope with the distractions that come from helping with a revival.

The Royal Court originally scheduled the premiere of Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? for 15 November but this clashed with the opening of Andrew Lloyd Webber's production of The Sound of Music. Therefore Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? is at the moment going through an uncommonly long preview period (press night is 22 November). The result is that a Caryl Churchill text is, most unusually, in the public domain prior to the press performance.

Macdonald tells me the American dramatist-actor, Sam Shepard (whom he directed as the father in the New York premiere of A Number) considers A Number (2001) the greatest play since Samuel Beckett's Endgame. A series of confrontations between the father and three of a batch of genetically identical sons, it is a light-footed, devastating meditation on the ethical, existential and psychological implications of cloning. It is beautifully balanced between optimism (nurture is shown successfully making up for nature in one son) and pessimism (people such as the father will always deludedly think that cloning gives them the perfect means of undoing damage - and correcting the past mistakes - inflicted on earlier facsimiles).

And now in Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? Churchill approaches the often (as now) disastrous Special Relationship between Britain and the United States in a characteristically biting and compressed and elliptical manner. Jack is a hitherto entirely straight Englishman who, having experienced a coup de foudre, leaves his wife and family for Sam, an American high up in the government administration who is gay. For Jack, it's a passionate infatuation. He'll go anywhere and do anything for Sam, as we discover in absurdist scenes where the cross-talk is in fast fragments of unfinished speech. The text gives great freedom to a director. Macdonald assures me that his will not be "the 'fucking' version - I think it's better to leave that to European theatre". Nor will it be the comic-strip version, though there's a vaudeville verve creepily at odds with the viciousness of what the pair envisage for other nations in the quest for the domination not just of the world or space, but "eternity filled with our.../love you so.../more and more".

Macdonald has found that the piece is more effective if the love is played for real. And while reading the piece, you are sometimes reminded of Bush and Blair. The piece - rather like Cloud Nine - presents a long period of history in the guise of a single love-affair. And whereas Far Away examines the crisis of the present day while never naming or referencing topical details, Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? bombards the audience with every twisted and self-interested atrocity committed by the United States in the name of freedom.

It's as though the play combines the free "late manner" of a great artist with the fragmented modernism of Churchill's early work, and there's the sense of abiding preoccupations newly considered. A deep form of originality is to go back with fresh insight to origins. So it's in a manifold sense of the term that one might describe Caryl Churchill as a true original.

'Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?' is at the Royal Court Theatre, London SW1 (020-7565 5000) to 22 December