At only 45 minutes long Caryl Churchill’s new play, Here We Go at the National, is practically over before it’s begun. Luckily its brevity does nothing to lessen the gentle emotional power of this bittersweet story about the death of an old man.
Its three scenes are presented as stylised vignettes, each with its own distinct and visually arresting design by Vicki Mortimer. Starring Patrick Godfrey as a protagonist known only as Old Man, the play (directed by Dominic Cooke) focuses on three different moments at the end of his life. The first is his funeral, where an ensemble cast portray friends from his past gathered in black clothing and sipping from wine glasses.
Talking detachedly about his life and work they convey a picture of an intelligent and celebrated man, but their lack of grief reveals how little his death really means to them. There is a sense none will be particularly affected by his departure in the long term. The weakest of the three scenes, the dialogue is rather stilted due to Churchill’s decision to truncate many of her characters’ sentences. Paradoxically, the actors’ discomfort shows as they struggle with a trick intended to create naturalism.
Mortimer surpasses herself in the second scene, creating a surreal black square that the Lear-like figure of Old Man appears to float in, surrounded by a strip of harsh white light. The overall effect has a filmic quality that removes us completely from reality, joining him in the afterlife. In an unsettling monologue Godfrey is a vulnerable figure in an unknown world trying to figure out what will happen next. Churchill’s nuanced prose introduces us to a liberal, free-thinking Englishman who has lived an active, happy life. Childlike and semi-naked he finds himself entirely alone in a biblical darkness, reflecting on his life and questioning everything he ever thought he knew.
Handling the prose with finesse, Godfrey brings an intensely moving blend of humour, anger, intellect and tragedy to the role but it is in the last, entirely silent scene, that he really excels. Set in a simple bedroom, a carer helps the old man to dress. The process is painstaking and drawn out almost beyond our endurance as the pair repeat the sequence over and over until the lights begin to fade. Godfrey’s performance is never idealised, the old man’s frailty unendurably sad, but as the duo repeat their efficient routine their movements become almost like a dance.
True to life, graceful and unique, Here We Go is a rare theatrical treat, a world-class but understated production that allows us to reflect on an experience we will all face: the end of life.
Here We Go is at the National Theatre, South Bank SE1 9PX until 19 December. Tickets £15. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.