Faraway and Disturbing

Caryl Churchill’s Far Away which had a run of 10 shows at the atmospheric Sitara Studio over the weekend, is one of those plays whose meaning is lodged as much in its ambiguities and disjunctions as it is in the action itself. Comprising three sections spanning 15 to 20 years, the play could be said to have a chronological structure. But it is not so much the chronology of character that concerns the playwright as what it means to be human in a world hurtling towards self-destruction.

In Far Away, human beings, emphatically meaning you and me, have gradually allowed fear, aggression, hatred and cruelty to drive them into an all-encompassing war that will not end till it has consumed us and our world totally. A young girl Joan, visiting her aunt in the idyllic English countryside, discovers on her first night there what human beings are capable of doing to one another. Stepping out in all innocence to investigate the scream that has awakened her, she discovers a lorry full of weeping people, her uncle hitting a child with an iron rod and the floor of the shed sticky with blood. Her aunt soothes her with smooth lies which soon begin to sound plausible enough to send her back to bed. Unknowingly, Joan has been co-opted by evil.

In section two, Joan has grown into a skilled hat-maker. She meets Todd, a senior at the factory where she works. Intent on expressing her creative ideas through hats, Joan only incidentally absorbs what Todd is hinting at about the kind of place they work in. There are murky goings-on that they can do nothing about. The enterprise of evil is too large, too well-organised for two individuals to stand up against it. This section culminates in what must be one of the most horrifyingly bizarre scenes on the English stage. The hat-makers’ extravagant creations are displayed on the heads of manacled prisoners walking to their death in a silent fashion parade. Joan and Todd are aware that their creations will burn with the prisoners’ bodies. Between the will to create and the will to destroy, the latter will emerge triumphant.

In the third section, Joan and Todd are married but separated by a full-scale war in which all humans, all nations and all created things are participants. Todd is with Joan’s aunt, both waiting for her to make her way through a world in which reptiles, animals, insects and the weather itself have taken sides with or against one another. A pregnant Joan arrives and speaks in a lilting monotone about the devastation she has walked through. Finally at the river, her only way to reach her destination, she has wondered on whose side it might be. “When you’ve just stepped in you can’t tell what’s going to happen. The water laps round your ankles in any case.”

These are the last lines of the play. Irresolute, they indicate not an end, but the absence of an end to what has been started. In the final visual, the aunt sits at one end, Todd at the other, and Joan stands in between, like an Impressionist painting. Are we to see hope in her grace which is so incongruent with the vicious war raging outside? Is the child she carries a symbol of a new beginning?

Director Rehaan Engineer, always one to challenge himself with tough texts, treats Far Away with the steely rigour it demands, using deliberate speech rhythms, controlled movements and silences to intensify its chilling effect. Even the soft padded movement of the crew that shifts the props between scenes is ominous. Staging the play on the traverse is a stroke of genius. It allows Engineer to use the long distance between the two ends of the performance space to suggest inter-personal distances while making the audience, sitting on either side, complicit in the happenings on stage. 

Kalki Koechlin as Joan and Sheeba Chadha as the aunt deliver quietly intense, finely shaded performances, supported by Vivek Gomber as a somewhat defeated Todd. Their body language and speech are so clearly defined that, although the play is surreal, their characters acquire a substantial reality. The costumes (Isha Ahluwalia), light design (Arghya Lahiri) and music design (Naren Chandavarkar) are one with the tone of the play, adding rich layers of meaning to its import.   

Had I not been too benumbed by its impact to rise to my feet, I would have given Far Away what it deserved. A standing ovation. 

Published On : 19-10-2016