In a small garden four older ladies sit engaged in conversation. Theirs is not a dialogue nor debate with a search for clarity or resolution. It is a meandering flow of comments and references, names and things to which all the characters interject their idiosyncratic observations. These are life experiences distilled down to a family member name or an expostulation about an experience. There is very little active discussion. Subject matter, such as it is, constantly changes direction. We have all heard or had conversations like this in which it is only necessary to refer to a few essential narrative points because all the rest is known. The tenor of the onstage conversation ebbs and flows, it is sometimes desultory and sometimes animated and at one point the characters all sing a song. However, it is the barest of expression of their thoughts and lives and it at once simultaneously binds them together and reveals the solitary nature of their inner lives. But within this four-stranded conversation there are the sub-texts. Each character gives a monologue, unheard by the others, and each monologue is, we assume, the key narrative in their life. There is the terror of living with a phobia, an all-consuming anger, a desire to be invisible, and reflections on a murder. We do not learn about places and we learn very little about chronology.
But this is not what the play is about.
Interrupting this conversation, at various points, the character, Mrs Herbert, played by Linda Bassett, steps out of the garden onto a dark stage to describe, in the past tense, episodes about an unimaginable environmental disaster and untold human suffering. Flooding, chemicals, wind of a strength unheard of, hunger, thirst, sickness and death – a terrifying and often surreal juxtaposition of ideas – are the awful stuff of her narrative. But her delivery is the key. There is no trauma, no distress, no woe and no grief. She is simply the messenger.
What do we make of it? Only what it is. The conversation of the four ladies is a template for most people’s lives a lot of the time. It is the ongoing process of understanding life and trying to make sense of it. For most people this is enough and even enough is too much as we have heard in the monologues. Scale this up and our competencies, mostly limited to the scope of our individual lives, are not able to negotiate or influence major issues. And it is a dark future that Caryl Churchill sees.
There is a joke in the conversation. Why didn’t the chicken cross the road? Because it saw a car coming. All four characters burst into laughter.
Excellent acting from all four very well-known actors and a text that recalls T. S. Eliot, Pinter and Beckett.