Routinely described as Britain’s greatest living playwright — arguably in a job-share with Tom Stoppard — Caryl Churchill can do in a 45-minute triptych what most writers take three full acts for. “Here We Go,” her new play premiering at the National Theatre in London, is a sculpture of sorts: The more you stare at it, the more it reveals. What seems a straightforward meditation on death, a cry to carpe that diem, turns into a sharp reprimand to its audience: a clarion call — check your privilege.
With three scenes and a title, Churchill sets us a trap. She ends with an extended dumbshow of an elderly man (Patrick Godfrey) repeatedly dressed and undressed by his caregiver (Hazel Holder). It’s an interminable process, trouser legs tugged down one by one, arthritic arms eased into sleeves, underpants inched to the floor. The old man creaks to standing, supporting himself on his walker. He shuffles from his bed to his armchair, then repeats the whole process in reverse. It goes on and on: Bed, armchair; armchair, bed. Under Dominic Cooke’s meticulous direction, it takes twenty minutes. You feel every one.
What do we see? The tragedy of old age, the indignity of it, an old man reduced to a stiff husk and hardly aware of his circumstances, living an empty life on a loop. In taking her time, Churchill takes ours. The minutes ticking by are minutes we lose. The old man stares out at us with empty eyes.
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What don’t we see? The young black woman doing the dressing and undressing, living an empty life-loop of her own. Churchill misdirects us until she’s practically invisible, a given or an extra. The preceding scenes have made him the protagonist. The first is his funeral and the second is his arrival in the afterlife. This cycle becomes his ending, but it’s her entire life.
Craftily, Churchill coaxes us into contemplating our own mortality. At the wake, suits stand around, tumblers in hand, remembering the deceased in the sort of clipped Churchillian sentences that end in ellipses: “I always remember the time he…”; “He didn’t look…” Each ends abruptly, stopped mid-thought. Every so often, one of the mourners turns outwards to describe his or her own death: cancers and car-crashes, sooner or later. You can’t help but imagine your own. Death comes suddenly, says one of the mourners, “like stepping on a rake.”
In the second scene, Godfrey appears, white-whiskered and bare-chested, in a soft pool of light. He’s arrived at the end of the tunnel to find every afterlife rolled into one. Osiris strolls past the pearly gates. Charon rows Vikings to Vahalla. Believe what you will, Churchill chuckles, because what can we know? Her writing’s wry, and Godfrey’s fantastic. His wide-eyed wonder at this next life comes studded with sadness for the one that’s gone.
Churchill’s title is ambiguous. A nod to our individual endings, yes, but also to our shared future as a society. We’re an aging population and we’ll need more and more care. With that comes increasing inequality. This man lived a full life — mourners recall a member of Parliament and an anarchist. In death, he chooses what to come back as. His caregiver, by contrast, has no such options: she dresses her patient again and again, always unthanked and largely unnoticed. He’s reduced to this, but she’s never been anything else; his ending, her every day. He’s hardly there. She has to be. Remind me: Whose tragedy is this again? Whose indignity? A phrase from the wake comes back to mind: “You love those you look after and those that look after you.” Is that what this is then? Love?