Top Girls has been Caryl Churchill’s most celebrated drama but its reception has never been straightforward. It was premiered in 1982 at the Royal Court Theatre by director Max Stafford-Clark, and became known as a play that was deeply representative of its era. Churchill was of the sixties generation (born in 1938), then a second-wave feminist, a socialist, anti-war and anti-colonial. The 1980s were synonymous with the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female Prime Minister, and with the political doctrine of monetarism. It is important to understand the extent to which the famously titled ‘Iron Lady’, who declared that ‘There is no such thing as society’, stood for everything that Churchill opposed.

More than any other of her plays, Top Girls reminds us that Churchill’s artistic enterprise has not just been about challenging form and realist conventions; she has also always been committed to representing many different generations and classes of women on stage and has written some of the most provocative parts for actresses in modern theatre. Top Girls no less than sixteen roles for women – usually played by seven actresses – and proffers some spectacular challenges to director and performer alike. The play’s preoccupations with the politics of reproduction and child-rearing, poverty, class, the rights of women and children, the meaning of success, and the dark side of capitalism are evident from the beginning of her career in the 1960s and still resonate strongly in her latest work.

Individual cultures and communities respond differently to Top Girls, depending on economic pressures, local understandings of rights for women, and on cultural and/or religious constructions of motherhood versus the working woman. Since the 1990s, western constructions of feminism have been alarmingly debased as an aggressive historical phenomenon despite continuing inequality, prejudice, sexism, and in some cultures, the violent repression and censorship of women. It is not surprising that Top Girls has been and remains controversial. The fact that it is also a canonical work in the UK, America and Australia, and has been performed in many countries throughout the world, is a very interesting testament to the importance of the controversies about working mothers it has generated.

While Top Girls shares preoccupations with other work by the same author that comes before and after, Churchill’s playwriting career has always resisted categorisation. There is no recognisable Churchillian style – as there is with, say, Pinter or Hare. The playwright’s next theatrical project can never be predicted, and her work shows a continued questing for a form of non-realist political theatre which asks edgy questions and engages in audacious artistic experiment. Though long associated with the Royal Court, she is not in the dominant realist tradition which the Court has marketed hard, and it is the influences of pre-war surrealism and the post-war politics of Absurdist drama (especially Ionesco) as well as the minimalism of Beckett that have always stood out in her work – from the early, chilling radio dramas of the 1960s, to later plays such as Vinegar Tom, Fen, The Skriker, Mad Forest, Blue Heart, Dream Playand Far Away.

Who can forget the nightmarish gibberish of the Skriker and her murderous appetites? Who can forget the scene between the vampire and the painfully submissive, self-destructive dog in Mad Forest? Who does not shiver at the stuttering form of Blue Heartwhich threatens to implode on the violent unspeakability of its incest narrative? Who is not haunted by the wildly extravagant hats adorning the silent internees in Far Away, all on a carnivalesque parade to their own execution? And yet the surrealism is presented in down-to earth fashion; it is woven into the fabric of the everyday with no self-consciousness. Internal and external worlds, reality and fiction, are in continual dialogue and collision in Churchill’s plays, in visual and sonic landscapes that have echoes of a theatrical version of magic realism.

The first scene of Top Girls is a stupendous coup de théâtre, and requires an exquisite choreography of timing and staging – not least because the majority of the characters are long. The celebrated fault line between act 1 and acts 2 and 3 breaks any dramaturgical logic and radical stylistic difference between acts has influenced playwrights such as Sarah Kane in Blasted, and Mark Ravenhill in Mother Clap’s Molly House. Churchill has repeatedly experimented with startling juxtapositions – of public and private worlds, domestic and working landscapes, emotional terrains and visual settings. The grim witch-hunting world of Vinegar Tom ends with a cabaret number by two famed misogynists; Cloud Nine indulges in spectacular cross-casting and juxtaposes colonial Africa with present-day England.

In This Is a Chair, a play one cannot help think must have been the inspiration for Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life, short, self-contained scenes depict moments from different times and cultures and the narratives of individuals explode into macro-political questions. In Far Away, a young girl is initiated in the horrors of genocide and war in act 1 and is then kaleidoscopically witnessed falling in love, becoming a collaborator in state terror, and finally a dehumanised warrior in an apocalyptic war. In Lives of the Great Poisoners, Churchill presents various murderous scenarios from different times.

Churchill’s ways of working have been just as experimental. She has a long working relationship with Max Stafford-Clark, and has enjoyed researching and workshopping with actors, directors, dancers, physical theatre experts, designers, choreographers and composers to stretch both her writing skills and push dramatic form to its limits. In the 1970s she worked fruitfully with women’s theatre collectives such as Monstrous Regiment. Later collaborations with Ian Spink on productions such as Mouthful of Birds and Hotel, Plants and Ghostswith Siobhan Davies, and with Katie Mitchell on A Dream Playhave posited a form of English Bauschian-inspired dance theatre. Her libretto, We Turned on the Light, for Orlando Gough in 2006 indicates that the thirst for working across disciplines is anything but sated. This adaptability to write for singers, for dancers and for actors across such a vast formal spectrum is extremely rare and singles Churchill out as one of the great European dramatic writers and theatre visionaries.

My own fascination with Churchill has come from directing her plays and teaching my students. It is unusual for anyone to comment on how terrifying and suggestible Churchillfs dramatic landscapes are. In truth, they are the stuff of nightmare, of primal post- Freudian horror. Children are far from safe in Churchill’s worlds. Parents and step-parents consistently fail to nurture and protect; indeed they abandon, torture, abuse, and openly threaten to kill their progeny. Sometimes children do not even have a voice in Churchill’s plays – they are ghosts occupying a strange no man’s land like the bare-footed boy in rags scaring birds in Fen; the mostly off-stage Susy in Blue Heart, whose impending but endlessly deferred arrival suggests the catastrophic trauma of a dreadful family secret. They cannot speak because they are the purveyors of a truth that cannot be named like Francoise in Hospital at the Time of the Revolution, who is traumatised by her parent’s complicity in the colonial regime; or they confront and are condemned like the alcoholic and brutally suppressed Lewis in Blue Heart: “It’s time we had it out. It’s time we spoke the truth […] I want my life to begin.” Lewis is consistently banished by his parents but their obsession with his absent sister carries darker and darker implications. Marlene is so disconnected from any sense of being Angie’s mother that she can barely conceal her dismay when her daughter walks into her office; at the end of Top Girls Angie’s vulnerability is highlighted starkly and her future looks determined by her poverty and lack of education, and the fact that her own mother seems content to consign her to the scrapheap. In The Skriker young teenage mothers, only children themselves, are singularly ill-equipped to deal with the trials of child-rearing. In the bonechilling A Number, a father blandly reveals his neglect and torture of his young son, and how he traded him in for another model and acquired a whole set of cloned sons by mistake. The original son, rejected like an object, tries to seek an explanation from his father who tells him: “I could have killed you and I didn’t. I may have done terrible things but I didn’t kill you […] I spared you though you were this disgusting thing by then anyone in their right mind would have squashed you but I remembered what you’d been like at the beginning and I spared you.” Such speeches are hyper-real in their sadism but Churchill is a master of the primal scene and does not spare her audiences.

The son is so traumatised that he murders the favoured son who usurped him and then kills himself. The father can only grieve selfishly and still has instincts to destroy, expressing dissatisfaction with yet another cloned son who appears happy and therefore out of his target range. Churchill’s worlds are Beckettian in their darkness, full of seething hatreds, and adults who are not in control of what they say or do to each other or their children.

Churchill’s latest play, Seven Jewish Children, continues the search for poetic forms for political theatre, the pattern of controversy, and the interest in challenging theatregoers. A script of a few pages without designated characters, it paints a sketchy history of the creation of Israel and meditates on the self-serving narratives parents tell their children in times of war and terror. Churchill bypassed publishers by making the play downloadable online, and performing rights on the condition that companies collect donations for a Palestinian charity. This is a new form of interventionism by an established playwright that is ahead of its time and the theatre world has not yet caught up with how it might be developed.

Churchill was once more engulfed in controversy and accused of anti-Semitism. The play paradoxically presents a mini-epic with a cast that could have unlimited numbers (I have directed 42 students) – and here’s the critical point, there are no children onstage – adults decide their fate and their futures, and are the bedtime propagandists and warmongerers.

TOP GIRLS tours January to March 2012

MARY LUCKHURST is Professor of Modern Drama and the co-founder of the new Department of Theatre, Film & Television at the University of York. Her book on Caryl Churchill is published by Routledge in 2012.

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