(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/2.)

Caryl Churchill at 80: theatre’s great disruptor

She has made every theatre trip an adventure into the unknown, with a relentless urge

Caryl Churchill, who will be 80 on 3 September, was once compared by a fellow writer to Pablo Picasso. At first, it seems a bizarre coupling: a bull-like Spanish painter-sculptor and an intellectual British dramatist. But, as you think about it, the comparison makes sense. Like Picasso, Churchill has an active political conscience, has had a big influence on succeeding generations and is a restless experimenter with form. That last quality is, for me, the key to an extraordinary career that has yielded close to 40 plays and made Churchill an iconic figurehead.

Given the surge in plays by women in recent years, one forgets just how isolated Churchill must have felt when she set out. She began writing at Oxford but, while raising a family in the 1960s, focused exclusively on short plays for radio. She had her first stage play, Owners, put on at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in 1972 at a time when there were scarcely any role-models for women dramatists. Ann Jellicoe, another experimental dramatist, was the only major woman writer to have emerged from the Court’s chauvinist culture, Shelagh Delaney had flared like a rocket with one hit and then fizzled out and Agatha Christie had her secure niche in the West End. Otherwise, that was just about it. To whom was a young woman dramatist to turn for inspiration?

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Photo: The Guardian

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