Death and dying, the two great staples of drama – both ancient and modern – are confronted head on in Here We Go, a 45-minute new play by Caryl Churchill, Britain’s most innovative living dramatist (and on the evidence of this curious momento mori, one of its most controversial). There is no doubt that audiences will be mixed in their response to it.
One mustn’t, of course, confuse quality with quantity. But putting this brief (but, to some, interminable) miniature into the vast space that is the Lyttelton Theatre is doing it no service at all. Value for money it ain’t.
The piece is divided into three separate but ultimately related sections, kicking off with what initially appears to be a cocktail party but turns out to be a wake in which eight assorted mourners talk randomly, overlappingly and incoherently about the deceased – a heavy-drinking, erstwhile MP in the 50s – before they themselves reveal the variegated, sometimes violent circumstances of their own deaths in the near future.
In the second segment, which plunges us into a black void, we see a bearded old man (whose funeral party we’ve just attended) stripped to the waist and caught in some Dante-like limbo land (“Is this the pearly gates?” he asks). What follows is a monologue, as our geriatric codger, forcefully played by Patrick Godfrey, in discombobulated fashion, rails on about the dying of the light and questions the nature of mortality (and hell) as he awaits his maker.
In the third and final part, Churchill abandons dialogue completely as we watch the Sisyphus-like ritual of the same old man – frail, infirm and clearly dying – being stripped in bed of his pajamas by a carer, who replaces them with a shirt, trousers, shoes and socks. She then steadies him onto his walker as he shuffles his way to an easy chair. Once seated, she begins to remove his shirt, trousers, shoes and socks, replacing them with his pajamas and a gown. She then helps him back to his bed, whereupon the ritual is repeated several times more – all in total silence.
As tedious as this routine is to watch, it’s an effective Beckett-like visual metaphor – aided by an almost imperceptible dimming of the lights – of the physical hazards of infirmity, old age and the slow process of dying a natural death. It certainly makes its point. Whether the majority of audiences will be happy to pay good money to endure it is doubtful.
The physical staging by Dominic Cooke, minimalist design by Vicki Mortimer and lighting by Guy Hoare are all meticulously synchronised to Churchill’s austere text. But, I repeat, the largeness of the venue does it no favours.