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Spotlight on: Caryl Churchill

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A giant in modern British theatrical history, Caryl Churchill is one of the modern era’s most ground-breaking playwrights.

Born in 1938, Churchill’s experimental theatre has paved the way for contemporary productions, bringing race, gender and sexuality right to the forefront of the modern theatrical consciousness. 

Image credit: drama_huddersfield on Flickr

Churchill’s first play to widely garner acclaim, Cloud Nine, is a pivotal piece of theatre. Although Cloud Nine was first performed nearly forty years ago, its relevance has never waned. The play couples together the horrors and hypocrisies of colonialism with questions of gender and sexuality, laying the foundations for a controversial yet compelling exploration of issues which plague society still to this day. 

Cloud Nine itself is split into two acts. The first is set in Africa, in a British colony during the Victorian period. In this act, Churchill employs various techniques, echoing the work of dramaturg, Bertolt Brecht, in order to question the seat of power and authority within colonial structures. Various characters within the family are played by actors of different genders to their original character with the family servant, whose character is intended to be a person of colour, being played by a white man.

This subversion of the lines of gender and race pushes the integral issues of the play centre stage. The culture of stiff upper lip pretention coupled with the intentional twisting of gender roles allows for a bizarre critique of colonial society. While the play is inevitably funny at times, a dark undertone follows throughout the first act with each character trapped within the convention. 

The second act takes a drastically different turn. Instead of the colonial and archaic setting of the first act, Churchill whisks her characters into the modern day, removing the obvious constraints of Victorian prudism. While, for the audience, swathes of time seem to have passed between the first and second acts, for the characters it has only been 25 years. Churchill defies theatrical convention to deliver a production which questions as much as it answers, divulging uncomfortable truths about the past and the present.

Perhaps Churchill’s most famous play, Top Girls, written in 1982takes a look at the opportunities afforded to women and the lengths to which they must go to achieve their ambitions. The play’s celebrated opening scene anachronistically sees various strong historical women attending a dinner party held by the protagonist Marlene. As with Cloud Nine, Churchill blurs theatrical boundaries in order to hold a mirror up to the circumstances of women in the early 1980s and throughout history. The play is sharp and witty yet tainted by the tragedy of the three protagonist’s circumstances as they struggle to survive in a society which does not favour their gender. 

Churchill’s plays are some of the most important in modern British theatre. Her works take the issues which form the foundations of societal structures and conventions and completely deconstruct them, leaving room for an interrogation of the aspects of life to which we have become complacent. Although written at the tail-end of the 20th century, Churchill’s theatre remains just as pertinent to the 21st. 

If you liked this, check out our Spotlight on: Berthold Brecht.




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