Thursday, September 23, 2021

Caryl Churchill / In theatre, it's all about the surprise


Caryl Churchill

In theatre, it's all about the surprise

The power of theatre to take you unawares can often be lost – which is why a new Royal Court initiative with Caryl Churchill is welcome

Interview Caryl Churchill by the people who know her best

My hero / Caryl Churchill by Sadie Jones

Lyn Gardner
Wednesday 5 June 2013

The box-office appeal of novel and film adaptations on stage suggests that audiences like known qualities. The whole point of Dirty Dancing is that it's a facsimile of the movie, and the fact it's coming back into the West End suggests there are plenty of people who know what they like. Maybe that represents less of a risk, particularly as West End ticket prices are so high, with a top price seat now averaging £87.

But I love being surprised in the theatre. I often think that part of my pleasure in new companies and work is the fact that there are no expectations. Back in the 1980s I was persuaded by Michael Morris, then at the ICA and now of Artangel, to drive across the south of England to see a company I'd never heard of performing in a sports centre somewhere in Oxfordshire. The company turned out to be Forced Entertainment. Then there was the sparsely attended version of Macbeth in an old school by a company called Punchdrunk – who I'd never heard of, but which I'd decided to take a chance on.

I'm always up for a surprise. I recall feeling slightly disappointed when I finally got around to seeing King John (in Deborah Warner's RSC revival with all those ladders), knowing that there were now no Shakespeare plays left that I hadn't seen or read.

And I still savour the feeling of excitement and astonishment I had on stumbling across 1927's Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea in Edinburgh. One of the pleasures of the Edinburgh fringe is taking a chance on a show and a company who I know nothing about, but whose show just happens to be at the right venue at the right time to fit into my schedule. I've often thought it might be interesting to spend an entire day seeing shows selected using the pin method – but then of course I don't have to pay for my ticket.

Still, it sometimes it feels as if there are very few surprises left in theatreland. Even brand-new plays by unknown writers now come with online trailers, pictures, rehearsal blogs and tweets. In the age of bloggers, few productions go completely unreviewed. Previews and interviews are everywhere in the media.

Of course all this information allows audiences to make informed decisions about what they book for, but as Caryl Churchill (a playwright who has always been admirably restrained about giving interviews, instead letting her plays do the talking) suggests, the information overload means that "it can feel as if we are just sitting through the experience we more or less knew we were going to have – very different from that magic feeling, as children, perhaps, of waiting for the curtain to go up and not knowing what was going to happen."

We can't un-know things we've read or seen about shows, and in my case it would probably be a dereliction of duty not to at least read the press release. But Churchill's idea for a season of Surprise Theatre seems like a fine one, and has been taken up by the Royal Court, whose upcoming six-week Open Court festival will feature surprise performances from writers, performers and theatremakers every Monday and Tuesday, beginning next Monday. There's even a surprise dinner menu.

I reckon it sounds like fun and, who knows – maybe there will even be a surprise Churchill play. If you can't go, or don't want to risk a tenner, all performances will be live-streamed online at 9pm. Not so long ago, that would have been a surprise in itself.


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