Here We Go, Caryl Churchill’s short, 45-minute play at the National, directed by Dominic Cooke, has divided the critics. They either love it or loathe it. I find myself being schizophrenically split between being deeply moved by the play’s reflections on mortality and yet somewhat frustrated by the lack of a more explicit, palpable political slant that has kept me returning again and again to Churchill’s work over the decades.
Echoes of Beckett have been widely attributed by the critics to this Churchill ‘short’. A dead man (Patrick Godfrey) whose wake is held in the opening scene is dispatched to heaven (or is it hell?) in the second. And in the third, wordless scene he is seen living out his final dying days in the hands of a professional carer. As in so much of Churchill’s theatre, temporally this trio of scenes defies a linear, chronological structure: they appear back to front – from the funeral, through the ‘tunnel’ of death, to the moments of dying.
Each part also has a different tone, rhythm and non/verbal patterning. In the first, relatively up-tempo scene, guests at the dead man’s wake speak of the deceased’s life. Their speech is so elliptical that reminiscences are partial, incomplete, as though the guests have succumbed to dementia. By contrast, the one ‘fact’ they each relate with absolute certainty is the time and manner of their own deaths in the years to come, or, in the case of the elderly female guest (Susan Engel), the day to come. She will be killed the very next day by a motorcyclist, so she tells us; a fate announced with such verve by Engel that it elicited a burst of discomforted laughter from the audience.
In Here We Go the crisis of selfhood that Caryl Churchill scripts in plays such as A Number or Love and Information is no longer confined to the living but extends to the dead. In the second scene, darkness and a thunderous, rumbling sound announce the deceased tunnelling away from this world, but seemingly not arriving at the next. Or rather, in this monologic sequence he wonders if he has reached the ‘pearly gates’. Has he done enough to be granted an after-life in heaven rather than hell? Or has his life been too ‘comfortable’? Black humour characterises his ruminations on whether he has been cremated and if so have his ashes been carefully handled, or mixed up with others. He’s a speck of sand in a desert, is one among an anonymous multitude, he reflects. With only his bare torso illuminated in the darkness, Godfrey is both highly visible, present, yet is also at the point of vanishing.
He disappears in a flash of light at the end of this scene, only to return to a stage reset for his final, mortal moments. And it is this last wordless sequence that has stayed with me the most. The dying man is in the hands of his female carer (Hazel Holder) – a low-status caregiver as denoted by her blue tabard. She assists him in the ritual of getting from his bed to wing-backed armchair, of dressing (by the bed) and undressing (on the chair). This painfully slow business repeats over and over, and the lighting grows dimmer. It is a beautifully observed sequence that captures the hurt of witnessing those whom we love becoming little more than the vulnerable shell of the person they once were – a fragile being for whom the mundane tasks of dressing and undressing can no longer be managed without assistance. Godfrey’s bewildered gaze as he holds on to his Zimmer frame and goes through the assisted motions of dressing and undressing speaks volumes.
Beckettian the play might be in terms of its minimalist form and death-themed subject matter. But Churchill’s signature surfaces in her poignant reminder that in leaving this world for the unknown next we are more often than not dependent on the unsung labour of professional caregivers – the help of people whose daily, working lives are lived in the shadow of those who are not long for this world.