What If If Only – Royal Court Downstairs

Caryl Churchill’s anti-ghost story is brought to life by the luminous John Heffernan and Linda Bassett

John Heffernan, Jasmine Nyenya and Linda Bassett in What If If Only

I was reading about this man who spent ten years trying to paint an apple so it looked just like an apple. That was eighteen to twenty eight.

Then he spent seven years trying to paint an apple so it looked nothing like an apple.

Then he died.

This is the sort of thing that interests you. That used to interest you.

In What If If Only, Caryl Churchill tries to write a ghost story. Then she writes something nothing like a ghost story. But here she does it all at the same time.

In her latest short play for the Royal Court, Churchill upends the usual ghost story structure. Typically, a ghost story will follow someone once living continuing to exist in some form beyond death. Here we are presented with the ghost (or ghosts) of dead futures, cursed never to have been alive and with no possibility of becoming alive. Though brief, at only twenty minutes (and a sparse, pause-filled twenty minutes at that), the production teems with raw emotion, humane philosophical enquiry, and political reflection. That it feels so rich is nothing short of a marvel.

Directing a Caryl Churchill play comes with many challenges, but What If If Only sees James Macdonald approach yet another Churchill offering with superb focus. The difficulty is the need to interpret the script’s elusive ideas, while leaving the effect thematically indeterminate. The production needs to be highly specific and careful, without losing its emotional power. This capacity for balancing directorial interpretation and authorial intention, while leaving space for audiences to make up their own minds seems exactly why writers such as Churchill, Lucy Kirkwood and Annie Baker have given Macdonald their wonderfully detailed and exacting scripts in recent years.

The script here is delightful and hard to pin down. Yet despite its strangeness (and sometimes our uncertainty over what we are actually watching), it begins with a command of semi-naturalist characterisation which is utterly masterful. Churchill subtly sketches her bereaved subject, Someone – played as a man here by a breath-taking John Heffernan. He talks to a partner who is not there, his long silences filled with hurt and blame. (We soon discover that his partner died by suicide.) Though overuse has often made such moments feel clichéd, Churchill’s shifts in tense between ‘are’ and ‘were’ when Someone talks about his dead partner express a fresh emotional truth. The trope is examined. Churchill grapples with the simultaneous deadness and continuity of the recently deceased; Someone describes the artist, saying ‘I think he was a difficult person like you’re a difficult person. Were. Are.’

Bitter that his partner sends no ghostly sign, he remarks ‘Are you not trying? If you’d wanted to talk to me you could have stayed alive.’ Churchill always seems to find the right words, even when feeding us exposition. ‘Would he kill himself? You know what it takes to kill yourself, would he do that?’, Someone asks. These barbed recriminations generate empathy, but I also felt that he is quite a difficult person too.

After the slow opening monologue, John Heffernan is joined on stage by Linda Bassett, who gives a very different yet complementary performance as a variety of apparitions: a Future, Futures, and the Present. Heffernan acts with slowly mounting intensity – which, depending on the night you see it, can burst into volcanic crying or something quieter and whimpering. (Both are hugely moving.) Bassett meanwhile displays a remarkable range, conveying the impish delight of utopia, the maelstrom of the chaotically competing possible futures, and the cool detachment of the present.

Miriam Buether’s set is a minimalist triumph, slotting well in front of the brickwork and plywood frame of Is God Is. The stage has an almost painterly composition. John Heffernan’s Someone is hemmed into one corner, sat across a table from an empty chair. The left half of the stage is entirely empty, the space enclosed by white walls that give the scene the look of a three-dimensional canvas. The emptiness is striking and simple; the room is too big for only one person.

The effect of Heffernan’s almost motionless performance (he fiddles at little with some fruit) is to make the stage look like a very empty painting. Indeed, ‘still life’ would be an apt subtitle for the play. After all, what is a ghost but life still going on when corporeal existence has stopped. The curious opening monologue establishes What If If Only as a play concerned with art and its limitations – a space for imagining possible futures and mirroring reality. The reason the artist shifts from trying to render apple in exact detail to pure abstraction is left unspecified, but it arguably reflects Churchill’s own shift as a dramatist. Most of her 21st century work would fit the description ‘fantastical’; generally, she has eschewed realism for something stranger. She does not simply paint an apple.

Perhaps this is an objection to realism as a tool for political analysis and debate – her own literary canon rife with experiments in political drama that does not look at all like conventional British examples. Would the artist paint the same apple or replace it with a ‘perfectly ripe apple’ each morning, Someone wonders. The folly of the artist trying to perfectly represent an apple which will have rotted away by the time the work is completed could be read as a comment on the short use by date much direct political writing will have. The gesture behind many of Churchill’s more recent plays (Escaped Alone, Kill and Imp spring to mind particularly) seems to be to evoke contemporary social and political forces, unmoored from our own world – though sprinkled with details from it. (In Escaped Alone’s apocalyptic world ‘eighty per cent of food was diverted to tv programmes’ such that ‘commuters watch breakfast on iPlayer’). Arguably the still life’s counterpart in drama is the state-of-the-nation genre, hinging on the representation of (or sometimes the attempt to reveal) how things are. Yet for Churchill, not only are some things in a constant state of flux, but others are lost to the past forever. Drama is too slow a medium to address the politics of the moment.

This makes it fascinating that What If If Only can be watched in the same evening as Lucy Kirkwood’s bravura Maryland, a rapid-response play written in only two days and staged script-in-hand just over a week later. It mounts a coruscating examination of violence against women and the police, particularly responding to the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa. Kirkwood’s play shows the immense value of directly political contemporary writing in playing out versions of all-too-common scenes from real life. Kirkwood’s play does something a bit different; it is (in Kirkwood’s words) a ‘howl’.

There are occasional, directly political moments in What If If Only. The utopia represented by Future is coded as specifically left-wing. Future notes that ‘I’ve been glimpsed I’ve been died for in China and Russia and South America and here’, aligning its politics with Socialism and Communism – though served with ‘equality and cake and no bad bits at all’ to sweeten the deal for potential detractors. Yet here, though begging to be made to happen, there is a resigned quality to Bassett’s performance. This is a future which thinks it will not happen, symbolic of the decline of left-wing idealism in the second half of the 20th century, to the present day.

Arguably one of the main themes of the play is political inertia, restated in Present’s monologue. She says that ‘the Present always has wars and any Future that promised no more is dead dead dead’. The present increasingly resembles Mrs Jarrett’s visions of the end of the world in Escaped Alone, and Far Away’s conflict-ridden world of ecological breakdown seems less and less far away than it did in 2000. Though the world may be chaotic and violent, at the same time the prevailing political and economic ideas remain stuck, Churchill suggests.

Yet the extent to which we accept the claims of the Present seems rather up to us. Indeed, our present malaise seems reflected in the grief-heightened cynicism of Someone. We have lost faith, not only in the soul persisting after death, but possible futures themselves. The Present is here to stay; ‘it will be the Present as it always is’. It is the end of history, not in terms of liberal democratic stability, but due to our tacit acceptance of our inability to reshape the world into something better. We no longer believe in a future or the possibility that we could shape it.

The play does push against this idea too though. It ends with a Child Future (winningly played with energy by Jasmine Nyenya and Samir Simon-Keegan) insisting ‘I’m going to happen’. The image is striking, filled with naivety and pure earnestness. Though the play is extremely sober in its representation of what has been irretrievably lost, it does not mean there is no future.

What If If Only

Written by Caryl Churchill, Directed by James Macdonald, Design by Miriam Buether, Starring John Heffernan, Linda Bassett, Jasmine Nyenya and Samir Simon-Keegan
Reviewed 11th October 2021

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