Whenever I see a new play by Caryl Churchill, I'm reminded of something Ted Hughes once wrote – that the great leaps in art are made on those rare occasions when we manage to outwit the secret policemen in our heads. Churchill, who at 63 is still our most constantly surprising and self-reinventing dramatist, evidently enjoys a rather special relationship with her own secret policemen, having long since, it seems, persuaded them to take early retirement. Last weekend in Paris, I put this perception of her to Peter Brook, our most constantly surprising and self-reinventing director, whose wonderful production of Churchill's latest piece Far Away has just opened in its French-language premiere at his theatre, the Bouffes du Nord.
Brook laughed and shook his head fondly – "That's Ted. That's Ted" – at the thought of how deeply characteristic the above statement is of the late poet laureate, a man with whom he worked on such secret-policemen-bypassing projects as Orghast, a version of the Prometheus story, unveiled in Persepolis, in an invented language Hughes had conjured from some Jung-meets-Chomsky level of the brain. Brook is renowned for his globe-traversing investigations into the deepest strata of myth (The Mahabharata, The Conference of Birds et al), his patina-pulverising classics (the white-box Midsummer Night's Dream, the pared-back Carmen) and, latterly, his light-footed theatrical meditations on the nature of our neurological high-wiring (The Man Who..., Je suis un phénomène). He has done relatively little work with living authors. You'd be more likely to find this director and company on a carpet in an African village than at one of those famous Monday morning script meetings at the Royal Court, the theatre where many of Churchill's greatest hits (Top Girls, Serious Money, Blue Heart) first saw the light of day.
Now Churchill – whose ability "to penetrate into the most obscure zones of daily reality where la vie intime overlaps with universal chaos" Brook rates with that of Hughes – joins the select band of contemporary authors this director has tackled. It was only a lamentable failure of nerve on my part at our meeting that stopped me from remarking that having bagged Caryl and Ted, he now only needs Bob and Alice to claim the full set. He would certainly have seen the droll side of that. In the acres of often sludgily generalised or rigid-with-reverence stuff written about him, his sly wit and darting sense of mischief get almost completely overlooked.
On all counts, this new production of Far Away is a major event. It matches one genius with another. It forces the French, who are exceptional in having resisted Churchill's work up to now, to attend to her. And, perhaps most importantly of all, it enables us to appreciate how this haunting 45-minute piece – which received its world premiere at the Royal Court in an excellent and very different production by Stephen Daldry in November 2000 – is one of the tiny handful of works that can truly be said to be a crucial post-11 September work even though it was completed many months before that horrific watershed.
The other great example is Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, which Brook has read but not yet seen. He declares it "such a rich and intelligent piece, pouring forth energy", while pointing out that, in terms of method, Kushner pushes in the opposite direction from Churchill. A sprawling four-hour epic, Homebody/Kabul charts her family's attempts to find an Englishwoman who has disappeared in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Places, factions, ethnic groupings and religious tensions are all strictly named: there is even a shockingly precise prediction that the Taliban, a regime America helped to create, are on their way to New York. Contrastingly, Far Away, a three-hander in three miniature acts, achieves the same degree of penetration into our current crisis by playing a brilliantly imaginative trick with the whole pernicious idea of categorising people along essentialist lines.
Though the play becomes a bewilderingly surreal blizzard of skewed categories and alliances, mention of any religion is conspicuous by its absence in a piece that begins with a little girl, Joan, who is unable to sleep, quizzing her aunt about what she has accidentally witnessed: her uncle herding people into a shed and hitting them with an iron bar. The play then jumps several years to the hat-makers where the older Joan makes fantastical millinery of the kind the authorities are forcing political prisoners to wear in degrading public fashion shows that precede their executions. "I learned only the other day," says Brook, "that in the Inquisition, extraordinary hats were put on people to ridicule them – a sort of devilishly ornate coiffure to make examples of them when they were burnt at the stake. I don't think Caryl knew that, which shows again how she works on that intuitive Ted Hughes level."
The final scene, set several years further on, returns us to the original farmhouse. The whole world is now at war – even the animal species have turned violently partisan ("The cats have come in on the side of the French"). There's a certain high-spiritedness to the horror as Churchill virtuosically confuses such categories as "instinct" and "free will", "natural" and "unnatural". Deer are viciously repudiated until it's discovered that they have come over to "our" side, whereupon there's a swift (not to say Swiftian) volte-face of view on them: "Their natural goodness has come through. You can see it in their soft brown eyes." It is significant that Harper, the aunt, who harps on about good and evil, supposedly the "decent" one, is also the most dangerous person of the trio.
The play becomes like a zany thought-experiment that's therapeutic to the soul at this time when, according to Brook, "there is no clean dividing line, but a war between relative shades of barbarity". Far Away prompts some marvellous perceptions from him, such as: "A Chinaman, say, is a metaphor for a human being. Two Englishmen talking in a bar in Paris" – he twinkles, indicating our immediate circumstances – "are just metaphors of something more essential". This is the key to his handling of the piece. Stephen Daldry's Far Away opened with the audience sitting before a painted front curtain depicting in detail what would have been a bucolic idyll (farmhouse, distant mountains, green and pleasant land) if the cumulus-fluffy sky had not been distortedly reflected in a lake that turned it into a snowy, precipitous, non-naturalistic abyss. Birdsong twittered; water audibly purled.
The more abstract nature of Brook's approach is evident from the outset. Gone is this calmly nightmarish near-parodic precision of the scene-setting. In its place, the ghostly sound of Bach's "Sheep may safely gaze", played in a two-fingered child-like way on the piano, cues us into a mood of fragile innocence. The spare design is dominated by three large octagonal white lamps that can be bathed in different primary colours or shudder in an electrical convulsion and then short-circuit to imply the offstage execution of the prisoners. The grotesque fashion parade was very much a present-tense public event in Daldry's production, a perverted prêt-à-porter. Here the parade of hatted figures who move to the elegiac strains of Death and the Maiden seems to be filtered through the subjective experience of the older Joan (superb Jodhi May) and her eventual lover (a very sympathetic Julio Manrique), who watch it with their backs to us.
Brook's primary emphasis is on how unmorbid and positive this play is. To that end, he has the older Joan visibly replacing her younger self (a transfixing Louise Andrieu), which suggests that the trauma she experienced at the house of her aunt (Kathryn Hunter) was not suppressed within her but developed into a mentality that, by the end of the play, seems to have pushed beyond that of the other two. "Who's going to mobilise darkness and silence?" she asks in the play's most haunted, haunting line. Art often works best by contraries and in imparting a more universalised feel to this play – which operates on the imagination in a way that even the most enlightened editorial could never do – Brook triumphantly shows that Far Away is now more than ever close to home.
'Far Away' is at Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, bvd de la Chapelle, 75010 Paris, to 30 March (+33 1 46 07 34 50)Reuse content