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Escaped Alone at first doesn’t appear to fit the nature of Circa Theatre’s Women’s Theatre Festival (WTF!). While it’s radical to see four women over 30 claim the theatrical space, there’s no obvious feminist subject matter, as with previous WTF! pieces The Journey of Miss Batten or Hen’s Teeth. Then again, when you consider playwright Caryl Churchill’s career in theatre (being critically dismissed early on based upon an unwillingness to grant interviews, for her unashamedly experimental and political content and, dare I say it, being a female intruder on the old boys’ club of British Theatre) it makes perfect sense. Historically, whenever one of Churchill’s major productions has premiered, it has been directed by a man — but this New Zealand premiere is directed by Susan Wilson, making it a uniquely feminist experience considering the limited roles available for women on and offstage in international theatre.
Unfortunately, Escaped Alone at times feels like witnessing the outcome of a three-way brawl between different scriptwriters, as if Churchill was in three minds about the piece while writing it. One writer is trying to produce a light-hearted ensemble comedy about the experiences of aging as women, while one is trying to cram in some deeply personal monologues addressing the ironic sense of isolation people can feel in the modern world. Then there’s the closet communist in the corner who delights in envisioning capitalism’s bloody downfall. I’m not sure how the communists’ pages got in, but they’re all there in the darkly comedic monologues of starving children watching Breakfast Shows on iPlayer and refugees on a three week NHS waiting list for gas masks. Ginette McDonald, playing Mrs Jarrett, performs these anomalies lit by a single spotlight between group scenes, and seems to relish the dripping malice of the direction.
This isn’t to say that these three scriptwriters are bad at their job. Churchill is clever enough to keep us out of the characters’ worlds as long as possible: we are introduced to the characters with an array of non-sequiturs, in-jokes, and gossip. You spend the first twenty minutes trying to look for a deeper feminist or postcolonial meaning, like the crown jewels of Churchill’s writing Top Girls and Cloud Nine. Then, just when you’ve written off Escaped Alone as an aimless, labour of love: the “cat monologue” happens, performed with tenacity by Irene Wood. What starts off as a laughter-inducing shpiel concerning Ailurophobia (irrational fear of cats) quickly turns to a deeply unsettling depiction of aging alone, and the paranoia that it brings. Suddenly, like the patio cracks in the floor of the set, the layers of pretense and fake smiles slip and break, and we are drawn into the murky past of endlessly charismatic Vi (Carmel McGlone) and the hidden depths of Lena (Jane Waddell).
But as a final point, even with four excellently directed monologues, my experience of Escaped Alone felt like a mirror of Mrs Jarrett’s experience in the play. I see women I recognise, and am invited in: they talk for an hour while I listen. Sometimes I laugh, sometimes I gasp, and sometimes I make a noise somewhere in the middle. Then I leave, unsatisfied, having not understood what I should have been listening to and what was superfluous. The acting and direction of the piece is fantastic, with the characters instantly likeable and complex at once. The dialogue is paced beautifully. But I wish the individual acting, direction, and writing could have been focused upon one cohesive narrative, as opposed to trying to craft something out of three different experiences.
As a counterpoint: it’s new theatre from Caryl Churchill. Even it’s extreme lack of cohesiveness has a certain charm.
Circa Theatre is currently offering theatre tickets for $25 for those 25 years old and under. Find out more at www.circa.co.nz.