What better way to counter the invisibility of older women than by putting them on stage? Caryl Churchill’s new play at the Royal Court, coming soon after last fall’s “Here We Go” at the National, doesn’t just provide jobs for four older actresses. It gives them voice. More than that, it advocates for them. In under an hour, “Escaped Alone” covers a lot of ground, but its juxtaposition of afternoon tea and environmental catastrophe proves particularly potent, not to mention wryly funny. One seems the end-point of patriarchal capitalism; the other, its potential salvation.
Churchill lets two things rub against one another: an image of idyll and an account of apocalypse. She shows us an English back garden, unkempt and overrun, in which four older women, all over 70, sit soaking up the sun and nattering over tea. They cover all sorts of topics, from the changing face of Britain’s high streets to quantum physics and the restorative power of a haircut, to nature and love and murder. Out of their chatter, you get a sense that the world has sped ahead, grown to a scale they can’t fully comprehend, changed so much they can’t keep track. As it does so, they sit back, pass the time and enjoy one another’s company.
As idle conversation, it’s keenly observed — Churchill’s take on talk for talk’s sake. Three of them are old friends, so old they don’t need to finish one another’s sentences. The fourth, Mrs. Jarrett (Linda Bassett), who wanders in off the street, keeps up as best she can, sometimes nodding along, sometimes misunderstanding. It seems a distinctly female conversation, collaborative, gracious and meandering — a mark of attention, rather than distraction. Full of humor too, by turns naughty, giddy and childish. They laugh with one another. They sing in harmony, a most delightful rendition of “Da Doo Ron Ron” by the Crystals. They offer mutual support.
In between snippets of this conversation, Mrs. Jarrett steps forward, out of the frame, and recounts an all-out environmental catastrophe of the sort that destroys modern life as we know it. Walls of water bear down on cities. Tons of rock rain down from the sky. Fires rage across the nation. Revelations and Roland Emmerich, rolled into one.
Churchill being Churchill, however, it’s slyer than that. Mixed in with the old, familiar terrors are absurdities and nonsense: virtual breakfasts via iPlayer, cancers of the laptop, biscuits made from burnt trees. She veers from humor to horror, sentence by sentence, so that laughter catches you off-guard, or else continues on into awful events, plainly stated. Every reaction is uncertain, and Bassett’s delivery — half horrified, half pulling your leg — is just as slippery. Her incredulity becomes inscrutable. She could as easily be a deadpan stand-up as a survivor.
It’s up to us to tie the two things together somehow. That even the apocalypse is monetized seems crucial. Kayak stocks rise in line with the floods and new food sources profit from famine. Churchill suggests capitalism ends in, but not with, environmental collapse. Chit-chat about Cain and Abel and chimpanzees implies that this might be our nature: competitive, self-serving, red in tooth and claw.
However, these women and their tea suggest an alternative. They seem like a panel of elders. Tucked away in this garden, hidden behind a wooden fence, they seem like an untapped resource and a groundswell of unheeded wisdom and care.
But Churchill’s not as straightforward or as sentimental as all that. She picks at the persistence of patriarchy. At various points, each of the four has a monologue, giving voice to the voices in their head and the things that hold them back. Sally (Deborah Findlay) talks of terror in a waterfall of words about a phobia of cats; Lena (Kika Markham) of inertia and catatonia, and Vi (June Watson) of a guilty past. When Mrs. Jarrett speaks, she simply growls the words “terrible rage” on repeat. As Bassett speaks, she and Churchill dare you to laugh. It’s deeply disturbing.
As ever, Churchill writes with power-steering control. Each line earns its keep and each word goes to work. Her elliptical half-sentences let the play blossom into multiplicity, as each of us fills in the gaps on our own, but they also instill a directness of speech. (“You think…” is a statement as well as a fragment.) Director James MacDonald matches it for levity and potency, while Miriam Buether’s garden is so realistic it seems almost plastic: a little English Eden made only for Eves. Remind me: Who run da world?