There’s no one quite like Caryl Churchill working in British Theatre today. Take Mad Forest, commissioned in the months following the Romanian Revolution by the Central School Of Speech and Drama and premiered at the small Embassy Theatre in London, when many would have been expecting her to be following up on her Broadway smash hit Serious Money with something a little larger. It was a smart move though. Work created for drama schools can lead a writer the opportunity to branch out, experiment away from the commercial pressures that even the subsidised monoliths are prone too. And Mad Forest is definitely experimental. What it also provides, is another one of her like-clockwork masterpieces, work rich in fantastical imagery and thrilling verbatim speech. Given a rich staging by director Max Key, working with the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School International MA students, it’s a night of theatre that enriches intellectually and viscerally.
Its structure takes a three act form: the first following two families in the months leading up to revolution as one family is blacklisted due to the daughter wanting to depart her motherland to marry her American lover and one family flourishing teaching the briefings of Communist Party General Secretary Nicolae Ceausescu, the second merges eye witness accounts of the violent uprising in Bucharest over Christmas 1989 as the citizens riot and the dictatorship falls, and the final third act sees the two families come together to celebrate a wedding and the scars and schisms between the two suggest that a revolution doesn’t necessarily beget a bright new day.
It’s a sharp piece of writing encompassing three very distinct styles. The first act focuses on episodes within a regime, very much Brechtian in approach, as we see citizens lining up to buy meat, broken conversations at bus stops, lessons within a school and conversations around the dinner table. Parts of narrative are shown without being fully explained, little life moments that blend together to make a whole. It’s lit and dressed in drab colours, a world of grey shrouded in constant suspicion and one in which any contact with the outside world will lead to punishment.
The second act follows thirteen voices over the first initial days as violence flared and the Ceasecu’s were tried and executed for crimes of genocide and corruption. Verbatim work was already being seen by 1991 but it wasn’t to the fore the way it is now, and arguable no one was weaving art into everyday conversations the way Churchill managed here. Whereas the nightly news and print broadsheets were telling the stories from those at the epicentre of power, Churchill builds the narrative from the students and artists, workers and helicopter pilots that were at the centre as the Ceausecu’s finally faced their reckoning.
It’s in the final extended act that the piece works its most pertinent magic though. From its glorious intro as a vampire sweeps in to taste the blood on the streets and gets into a conversation with a stray dog, to the terrors of the hospitals in the immediate aftermath it all builds up to a big family celebration where events come to a head. Like the argument between sisters in Top Girls, extended to an eleven-way brawl at a wedding, the scene thrums with joy and guilt, changing fortunes and blunt appraisals. In the years after Brexit the split between the younger and older generation about the future of the country feels especially pertinent.
Key is especially confident marshalling his ensemble in these big moments, and this final act is thrillingly realised. It’s real ensemble work for these 13 MA students, all giving detailed and well considered characterisations and there is especially telling work from Sasha Dominy as the girl who finds America isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, Kaiya Jones as a student shot on the streets and Thomas Williamson III as the son rebelling against his state serving parents. But really you could name each and every one. It’s a work that allows every student to grab their role with both hands (not surprising when the work has been created originally for drama students).
It’s strange, Mad Forest is one of those plays that had completely passed me by and on watching it you wonder why it isn’t better known and constantly revived. It confirms once again the derring-do of one of our greatest writer’s period, and it is all excitingly realised in a crack production. What’s not to like?
Mad Forest plays at the Wickham Theatre until the 21st July