Far Away is a dystopia of incomprehensible proportions. It holds a mirror up to a host of current political and social issues, and at the same time smashes that mirror and has us in the audience desperately trying to piece together the fragments. Just five years since its last London showing at the Young Vic, Caryl Churchill’s play is nonetheless so endlessly interpretable in so many prescient ways that it is a production that could almost never not be due a revival.
At barely 40 minutes, the play is a masterclass of spare theatrical writing, encompassing tense family drama, political horror story, romance as well as absurdist comedy in its short length. It follows the life of protagonist Joan in three wildly different scenarios. The first is in a rural home, where as a girl (played by Ally Sophia) she gradually recounts to her aunt Harper (Jessica Hynes, utilising her quick, ironical style to great effect in a tragic arena) a horrific scene outside in the yard involving her uncle, despite Harper’s unnervingingly insistent attempts to persuade her to a more innocent explanation. Next, adult Joan (Aisling Loftus) is in a workshop alongside Todd (Simon Manyonda), where both seem to be engaged in fairly banal workplace discussion, before the darker purpose to their work is revealed in a memorably disturbing sequence. The play then ends back at Harper’s house, where the sense of threat that has been consistent throughout suddenly reaches impossibly surreal, elemental proportions.
Director Lyndsey Turner presents the action through the eyes of a dreaming young Joan, who scurries about the dark stage in a white nightie between scenes, figuratively acting out the meaning of the wider narrative in some abstract way. It is a commentary on the naive foolishness of so many human schemes, and the limitless capability of all that people can achieve in their weirdest and darkest dreams. The play as a whole is a totally dissociative experience, as we are endeared to characters and then suddenly put off in a visceral spasm of shocking revelation. Designer Lizzie Clachan fills scenes with an array of brightly saturated colours in the clothing and furnishings that, while warming and endearing at first, begin to clash and cloy before shockingly jarring with the greys and black of drab militarism. The whole production prevents the viewer from ever settling on a certain view of things, continually disrupting our presumptions and sympathies.
It is also immensely political in a much more obvious way, taking in references to Nazism, genocide, human trafficking and populism – and such is this smorgasbord of potential allusions that no interpretation can ever be extrapolated to a definite explanation. It has the quality of Orwell at his best, when we are led so deeply into a political allegory that we the reader can no longer clearly distinguish between who or what is good or evil. But then instead of eventual profound political revelation, Churchill instead descends into realms of such postmodern absurdity that we can no longer maintain any understanding of the physical world around us. It is an unsettling, left field commentary on how the grandest notions of humanity can descend into meaningless chaos and destruction.
Far Away is playing at The Donmar Warehouse until 28 March. For more information and tickets, see The Donmar Warehouse website