Here We Go- Caryl Churchill- National Theatre
When one of the characters in Caryl Churchill’s Here We Go proclaims that they “feel 16 all the time,” it seems like a woebegone, yet ultimately hopeless rebellion against death – arguably the chief topic of this 45 minute triptych that cuts through the air like a raw wind.
But it’s an important moment in the first scene, which sees Dominic Cooke’s ensemble gather, willowy and ghost like, at the funeral of an unnamed man, where they not only share their haphazard and complicated thoughts about the deceased, but offer the audience glimpses of their future mortality as well.
Life seems so brief and yet so expansive. And Churchill’s style of writing follows suit with its short, truncated sentences as she untangles, in an essayist fashion, the meaning of existence, its cessation and our helpless but natural struggle against it. As the unnamed actors, themselves in a formless sort of purgatory, exchange pleasantries, they leave questions unanswered, and the unspoken words hang in the air like lightning bolts that find nothing earthbound to strike. The effect is to leave the audience in limbo land, a little like Vicki Mortimer’s blurred white flats and black doorways, in and out of which actors appear as if from a gaping chasm.
This sense of randomness or fate – we don’t know when a lightning bolt or an act of God will strike us down and take away our lives – is carried over into the next almost-static tableau where a dead man (perhaps the same dead man from Scene 1) appears painted in Guy Hoare’s Rembrandtesque light. Oddly, there is more life here at the “pearly gates” of Heaven than in the previous scene. Here are rage and passion, as the dead man ruminates over his life, stripped to his waist so we can see the physical, bodily contours of senescence. “How much good did I do?” he laments, but like the quote in Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, “What did you offer to make your friends so supportive?” we are not meant to take this as a public remonstration or even a moral directive.
Instead, we are forced to confront time and perspective. Guilt – of not having suffered enough and as much as others, or having done enough to help or having “Looked at a tree for too long” – lays to waste this man’s mind and soul. What would it be better to come back as? Depends on your openness and values. And how do we deal with time? Do we experience it as a compact entity, in the same way that Churchill’s writing is more dense to give it supplementary depth? Is it that we experience our lives like Guy Hoare’s flash of exterminating light – brief and yet elongated?
We are temporally limited and the last scene, heralded by Christopher Shutt’s heavenly birdsong, might be trying to make that point. This last section, which unravels in dialogue-less repetition, has plenty to say about old age and how time, like sundown, is slow, almost imperceptible yet unstoppable. If you so wish, you can choose to see Patrick Godfrey as the Old Man as visible or invisible, vacuous or deeply engaged with an inner life, left alone by others or buoyed up and physically supported by them.
Like a biblical storm of thunder and swelling seas, Churchill gathers all her themes and throws them at us to contemplate. The play is a vision. It has to be, for Churchill is tackling the very nature of existence, about which we can only have little flashes of understanding, like the shivers of energy and light that permeate the whole show. Our existence, what it is and how we experience it in time, is difficult to grasp, like catching sight of the edges of the universe itself. In the end, perhaps there is nothing except communal silence.
Dominic Cooke directs with clear cut clarity, paring away at Churchill’s crystal clear writing to find an elegant sophistication. Patrick Godfrey’s Old Man is angry, disrespectful, reverent and deflated by turns. The rest of the ensemble all give immaculate, precise performances. Whatever your age, the play is a “vision” of short lives lived long in the expanse of time.