Theo Bosanquet talks to one star of Escaped Alone, the thought-provoking Caryl Churchill play arriving at Bristol Old Vic this month
When actress Linda Bassett first read the script of Escaped Alone, she had a clear vision of all the characters except one. “I could picture the others, but I just couldn’t picture Mrs Jarrett – which was interesting, considering that was the one I was taking on.”
Part of the reason for this, she says, is because Mrs J – as she’s referred to in the script – is open to so many interpretations. “She’s the woman down the road, but then she talks about these catastrophes that give her a whole different dimension.”
Linda Bassett as Mrs Jarrett, image © Johan Persson
These “catastrophes” are relayed in a series of monologues delivered between four women talking over tea in a back garden. And that the play’s author, Caryl Churchill, has blended naturalism and surrealism in this way should come as no surprise, seeing as she’s been exploring the boundaries of theatrical form for over 50 years.
It was Caryl, in fact, who gave Linda her first big break in theatre, casting her in her 1983 play Fen – a Joint Stock production that came to the Royal Court. So how does Linda think her writing has changed over that time?
“She always writes about the time she’s living in, and she’s usually a few steps ahead of other people,” she answers. “She has a political and poetic sense of current events. She introduced the overlapping dialogue back in the ’80s, whereas now she almost does the opposite. There’s a different cadence to it now, the lines are shorter.”
Deborah Findlay and Kika Markham as Sally and Lena, image © Johan Persson
Escaped Alone, which conjures up apocalyptic horrors one minute and friendly chit-chat the next, speaks particularly to a time when people are still “in shock” about world events. “A friend came to see it and said it was a relief to sit in an audience having similar responses,” remembers Linda. “I think it made her feel less lonely with all the things her brain is trying to deal with.”
Despite being only 50 minutes long, the play is brimful of ideas and meaning. At times, the dialogue can feel half-finished, with whole conversations alluded to in a single line. The key to enjoying it, says Linda, is simply not to think about it too much.
“If you try and follow it all literally, you get into difficulties,” she explains. “If you sit back and just let it in, you’ll get it. You just have to let it come at you. Its meaning may only hit you the next day.”
It’s rare to see a play that features exclusively older women, and Linda is revelling in the opportunity to work with three other seasoned actresses (namely, June Watson, Kika Markham and Deborah Findlay). She describes it as like being part of a musical quartet, with each player both “good at their own part, and very admiring of the others”.
And the music isn’t just metaphorical. One scene sees the women launch into a beautiful acapella rendition of The Crystals’ classic Da Doo Ron Ron. They tried out several other options in rehearsal before landing on it, and the reason harks back to Fen. “We used to sing it in the minibus as we toured around the country, and Caryl remembered it very clearly,” says Linda.
Life has changed a lot for Linda since those early touring days. Thanks to films such as East is East, The Hours and Calendar Girls, and TV series including Dinnerladies, Lark Rise to Candleford and Call the Midwife, she has long been a household name. But it’s on stage that she feels most at home, and she’s delighted to have the chance to tour again. “I have mates in all the places we’re going, and some special associations too. I got to know Bristol well when we did Lark Rise, and Salford has a particular place in my heart because of East is East.”
After the national tour they’re taking the play to New York. It’s an interesting time to be going there, to say the least, in light of the recent election of President Trump – so how does Linda think the play will go down? “I don’t know whether Trump supporters will come and see it,” she says. “I wouldn’t have thought so. New York was heavily against him. Caryl is very loved over there. They love her poetic side particularly, which the British sometimes find a bit tricky.”
“Dystopian ideas suddenly feel quite contemporary. And I think the uncertainty of what’s coming next is part of the reason the play chimes with people.”
One line in the play loosely equates the American eagle with fascism. Considering it was written pre-Trump, it seems eerily prophetic. When Escaped Alone premiered at the Royal Court last January the line didn’t elicit much of a reaction – now, Linda has to wait for the knowing laughter to subside. “Dystopian ideas suddenly feel quite contemporary. And I think the uncertainty of what’s coming next is part of the reason the play chimes with people.”
Interestingly, the title is a reference to the book of Job, as quoted in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Linda, who was “brought up on Bible stories,” explains that it refers to a servant who escapes disaster to report back to Job on the horrors God has inflicted on his family. This helped her uncover something important about Mrs J – that she, in a sense, is also a messenger.
“Many of the horrors she describes are not visions of the future, they’re visions of the past,” she says. “They are reminders of what happens whenever greed takes what it wants and lets people die. These are not natural disasters – they’re all created by humans…”
We ignore her warnings at our peril…
The Escaped Alone UK tour finishes at Bristol Old Vic from 22-26 March; bristololdvic.org.uk