A short, sharp shock of a play, Far Away turns the world that the comfortable middle class thinks that we’re living in inside out, to reveal the brutal realities of an adversarial existence where the only rules are to keep your head down and your eyes blinkered, and trust no one and nothing. It’s not surprising, then, that the way in which playwright Caryl Churchill has chosen to show this has, in itself, a polarising effect on the audience. Those first nighters who found it an innovative and powerful statement clapped enthusiastically, while those who saw it as obscure, or pretentious, or bleak, or all three, stayed their hands.
That it could be viewed as a theatrical experience rather than a conventional play is reinforced by an unusual element in the program notes, which follows the operatic convention of providing a one page summary of the plot. And while in general I have a preference for discovering the story as it unfolds, I can see that it could be helpful to read the brief outline beforehand in a play such as this one, which is at the same time both conceptually complex and elliptical.
Director Leticia Cáceres has less than one hour to track the disintegrating world of Far Away, and succeeds in doing this in such a way that the play stays with you long after it is over. In this, she is aided by a cast which while not exciting is certainly competent. Carol Burns, as Harper, is extremely effective in her reluctant construction of a menace that she starts off by fighting to keep at bay through denial and the outward signs of a conventional world, but to which she finally surrenders when panic becomes the only logical response. Emily Tomlins brings considerable warmth to her role of Joan, the innocent who travels from normality to chaos, although she remains a touch too breathlessly and lispingly childlike as she shifts into young adulthood; and Marc Richards works hard, but is not totally convincing as Todd, who becomes her guide and lover.
Visually, the shuffling volunteers make a strong impact in the second act parade, while the dramatic scenery (designed by Tanja Beer), lighting (by Jo Currey) and sound (by Pete Goodwin) make a vital contribution to the overall power of this production. And, at 55 minutes and with no interval, it’s well worth going to see and make your own mind up about this controversial play.