Caryl Churchill’s 2000 play, Far Away is a masterclass in playwriting and creating powerful political allegory, making its recent revival at the Young Vic a must-see for all theatre-makers and enthusiasts alike. Far Away is compact, running at only 40 minutes, but all the stronger for it: touching on a vast range of subjects from human trafficking, to show trials, to full-scale world war, and most terrifyingly, our own part in all of these. With this perfectly crafted piece, Churchill wastes no time in cutting to the bone with dialogue so economical it’s searing, and a vision of the world so bleak it’s almost unbearable. Indeed, the greatest strength of Far Away, is continuously coaxing you to believe it is one thing, then forcing you to see its characters and world anew, leaving you unable to trust your own judgement or what you think you know.
With such an iconic text, so packed with creative possibilities for any director, it is no surprise that Kate Hewitt, captured the imaginations of the JMK Trust who awarded her this prestigious prize: the opportunity to stage it in the Young Vic’s space, The Clare. And indeed, Hewitt clearly demonstrates she is a director of great promise, with a perfectly cast production bursting with strong images and nerve-wracking tension. Moreover, Georgia Lowe’s design is simple and clever, with the traverse stage forcing an uncomfortable intimacy between the audience and the work.
Samantha Colley, fresh from her thoroughly memorable performance as Abigail Williams in The Crucible across the road at the Old Vic, has an arresting on-stage presence as Adult Joan. She is accompanied by a superb cast, her blossoming romance with fellow hat-maker Todd, (Ariyon Bakare) perfectly pitched against the backdrop of exploitation and execution which we slowly come to learn of. In the marrying of her concept and the performances she has encouraged in the cast, Hewitt manages to create a potent, horribly ironic and bittersweet mixture of their joy in each other, and the sheer grandeur and beauty of the hats they create, underscored by our knowledge of the abhorrent circumstances they meet and make them in.
This production of Far Away certainly demonstrates Hewitt’s huge promise as a director, though the missed opportunity to really capitalise on some of the most jaw-dropping moments in Churchill’s text, which the play truly hinges on, is a shame. The sheer impossibility of staging some moments literally, such as the procession of prisoners in the hats which Todd and Adult Joan have crafted, offers huge creative scope to directors, while simultaneously it is imperative to capture the essence of what Churchill does with the text. Unfortunately, while the idea was commendable, the directorial and design solution to this approach somehow missed the mark: feeling drawn out, over-emphasised and relying too much on its own cleverness at solving the logistical problem Churchill presents, rather than capturing the harrowing implications of what she has written, and the cleverly placed lies she has sold us throughout.
Nonetheless, small blips like this do not detract much from the overall experience, which is a compelling and invigorating evening at the theatre which leaves you both shaken and wanting more. It will certainly be worth watching Hewitt as she continues to develop as a director, and it is undoubtedly worth watching Far Away if you want to develop as a citizen and as a person.
Far Away is playing the Young Vic until 29 November. For more information and tickets, see the Young Vic website. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith.