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Churchill's 1979 play Cloud Nine took a satirical swipe at colonialism, explored role reversal and hopped from the Victorian era to the 70s. The play was unveiled at the Royal Court with Julie Convington (left) among the castNobby Clark/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
'She made us raise our game'
Playwright Caryl Churchill turns 70 this week, and still has new things to say about women, war and the world. Mark Ravenhill talks to fellow writers about her powerful influence
Recently, I was talking with a young German playwright. "I love the British playwrights of your generation," she said, "Sarah Kane, Debbie Tucker Green, Caryl Churchill." Smiling, I told her that Churchill had her first stage play performed more than 35 years ago and is 70 this week. "But how," spluttered my colleague, "can she write like such a young author and be such an old lady?"How indeed? Over the past 35 years, Churchill has created some of the most iconic moments in contemporary British theatre: the cross-dressing colonials of Cloud Nine; the meal shared by a collection of female historical figures in Top Girls; the swaggering, foul-mouthed yuppies of Serious Money; the grotesque parade of designer-hatted prisoners in Far Away, and the cloned brothers of A Number. Her plays have perfectly expressed the anxieties and possibilities of the moment in which they were first performed, and yet have managed to seem new in subsequent revivals.Of all the major forces in British playwriting, I can think of no one else who is regarded with such affection and respect by her peers. Maybe it's because Churchill has kept a low public profile over the years - she rarely gives interviews - while always supporting new writers. Maybe it's because she has quietly and consistently built up an impressive body of theatre work, largely through a relationship with one theatre, the Royal Court in London. But it's her ability to continually reinvent the form that most writers would identify as her genius. In Churchill's plays, there is a constant search for new kinds of language and theatrical structures: devices that can reveal the essence of a moment. As the playwright Wallace Shawn said to me: "So many of us have great affection for the theatre, but so often we find it rather dull. But when you see a play of Caryl's - rich, inventive plays like Fen, or The Skriker, or A Mouthful of Birds - you realise how exciting it is to be a playwright."Nicholas Wright, who directed Churchill's 1972 Royal Court debut, Owners, remembers their first meeting. "We met in a pub near the theatre. My first impression was of this very beautiful woman, a bit shy but sharp and funny. She said, 'Would you like me to rewrite the play?' which surprised me. It was something we didn't think about back then. Caryl is always rather ahead of her time."To celebrate her 70th birthday this month, the Royal Court is inviting a number of playwrights, myself included, to direct readings of Churchill's work. Over two weeks, a chronological selection will be presented, from Owners - with its tang of Joe Orton and its prescient portrait of an obsession with ownership - right through to her plays of the past decade, including the disintegrating anti-plays that make up the double bill Blue Heart, and the disturbing fable of a world at war with itself, Far Away.My own first encounter with Churchill's work was a student production of Cloud Nine. As a young man still hesitant about my own sexuality, I found the play's journey from a 19th-century colonised Africa to a modern urban park where the characters explore new sexual freedoms a dark and disturbing experience. Seeing the play again 10 years ago, in a revival at the Old Vic, I was impressed both by the authority with which it held a huge theatre, and how fresh and troubling its questioning of sexual roles still was. And the gentle candour of a speech in which an older woman describes her discovery of masturbation still seems - nearly 30 years after the play was written - as if it is being spoken afresh. Wright, who saw the play's first production, recalls being struck "not so much by the sexual explicitness on stage - we'd all seen pretty much everything by then - but the moral frankness of the play. Caryl's plays say things that we're all thinking but haven't yet expressed."For the Royal Court readings, I have chosen to direct 1976's Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. Written for the leftwing company Joint Stock, the play charts the disintegration of radical political possibilities during the English civil war, skilfully balancing individual and communal experiences. It is a play that is rich in language: prayer, debate, ecstatic meetings, the stumbling attempts of the newly empowered to find a voice. April de Angelis, who will direct Owners, speaks of that play's "vertiginous sense of possibility - every line gives you a surprise". Joe Penhall, directing A Number, praises Churchill's gift for the demotic: "She captures the elisions and confusions of real speech. I read a pile of contemporary plays when I started out as a playwright and they were all full of characters who sounded like Oxbridge graduates talking to each other. Then I read a copy of Churchill's Ice Cream, and it was - wow! When somebody like Pinter or Churchill comes along, you listen for the first time to the way people actually speak."De Angelis believes Churchill changed the landscape for women writing for the theatre. "When I began writing plays in the 1980s, people would still say to you that plays are all about structure and women can't do structure," she says. "But now you could point to plays like Cloud Nine and Top Girls and say, 'Rubbish. Caryl Churchill's doing the most incredible things with structure.' She made us raise our game intellectually. My politics at the time were pretty simplistic, really just about writing bigger parts for women. But you saw Churchill's work and it really made you question why you were writing." De Angelis recalls a group of female playwrights performing the opening scene of Top Girls on the Royal Court stage in the early 1990s, partly as a way of acknowledging the possibilities Churchill had created for other women in theatre. "There was a group of us, including Sarah Daniels, Winsome Pinnock and myself, in the scene. I felt nervous and uncomfortable in the costume, but I really appreciated the chance to experience the writing from the inside. It's a complex piece: she develops a new way of overlapping dialogue. The women in that scene are all people who've achieved so much, but in such a competitive society that they can't listen: they're not a community of women, they're individuals telling their own stories.""Politics are incredibly important to Caryl," says Wright, who will direct a reading of Top Girls. "I think she's had so much of her work premiered at the Royal Court because she sees it as an anti-establishment place. That makes it very different from other theatres for her." For Marius von Mayenburg, resident playwright at Berlin's Schaubühne theatre, it is Churchill's ability to capture the "reality of political emotion" that makes her such a distinct voice. "Many German playwrights of the same generation became didactic in their writing," says Von Mayenburg, "but she has taken political theatre to a new level. Her plays ask the important questions. We produced A Number in Berlin, and it captured the audience's anxiety about the dissolution of identity."Wallace Shawn will direct Ice Cream, a black comedy of Anglo-American relationships. He observes that, in America, "she's never become enough of a household name to lose her cult status. But it's a very big cult. We fans have a secret handshake. If you find someone who also likes her work, you know you have a special connection."Of course it's possible to trace recurring themes in Churchill's work - alienation between parent and child, the possibility and failure of revolution. But it is the variety of her work that is most striking. As Von Mayenburg says: "With each play, she discovers new genres and forms. She then discards them and moves on, opening up possibilities for other playwrights to explore. I think many people writing today don't even realise they've been influenced by her. She's changed the language of theatre. And very few playwrights do that."
· The Caryl Churchill readings are at the Royal Court, London, SW1 from September 16-26. (020-7565 5000, royalcourttheatre.com)