I know people who couldn't be dragged by wild horses to a Caryl Churchill play. That's perfectly okay by me (I have my own list of playwrights whose work I really don't want to see again) but I find her spare, minimalist style of theatre more and more fascinating. Elliptical, elusive but somehow totally accessible, this is a 45-minute play that breaks all the usual rules that playwrights are supposed to follow, and still creates something unforgettable.
Don't look for character, plot or conflict between characters in this meditation about death. It's strikingly modern, conjuring up a mesmerising balance between closely observed naturalism and its opposite. At times I felt I was watching a medieval mystery play like the National's recently staged Everyman, in which the devil comes to tempt and threaten a man who stands in for the rest of us.
There are just three scenes. In the first, a varied group of characters chat, wineglasses in their hands, after a funeral. They swap anecdotes about the man who has just died, who is now part of the past. But the banal conversation suddenly becomes electric, as each character in turn addresses the audience in a matter-of-fact way to foretell their own death, a certain number of years into the future. We can foretell many things, but the date and manner of our own deaths are not among them. Death is part of everyone's future.
Scene two takes place in blackness, with a single actor (Patrick Godfrey) naked to the waist under a spotlight, delivering a monologue to the audience in which he explores the limbo between life and death, heaven and hell. It's a bravura performance by a veteran actor who has played hundreds of different parts in his long career, but can rarely have done anything better. Godfrey becomes Lear-like as he stumbles his way through what Catholic doctrine calls purgatory. Has his soul already left his body, or is he exploring the comforting illusions of Christian and other belief systems that focus on the rewards of the after-life. Finally his musings are brutally terminated as the lights are suddenly extinguished. Death and life are shown as irreconcilable opposites. The no-man's land in between is not there.
In the final, most moving scene, not a word is spoken. We watch an old man (Godfrey again) being slowly helped by a female carer as he is repeatedly dressed and undressed. WIth a zimmer frame he covers the two yards between the bed and the armchair, then the process starts again in reverse. Gradually the lights become dim, the movements seem to slow down, and eventually the long twilight of old age becomes darkness. Death is not the opposite of life, but a process. We can be nominally alive but in fact, death has already taken over.
I don't think any other writer who could have conjured up this daring piece of theatre, though there are probably quite a few directors who would have jumped at the chance to put it on the Lyttelton stage. In the event, Dominic Cooke is the director and Vicki Mortimer the designer. Churchill famously gives no interviews and offers no explanations. The programme for the show offers little more than a cast list. Take it or leave it. Die tomorrow or in thirty years' time -- as you wish. But sooner or later, here we go.