Could things have been different? Can we change the past? Should we risk the consequences? These are the questions posed by Caryl Churchill’s latest wisp of a play, What If If Only – and which it teasingly, infuriatingly, only half answers.
Perhaps that’s due to the play’s length: at just 17 minutes long, it is a tight set piece which sees three actors inhabit a minimalist stage to discuss life’s big themes, from death to destiny. Directed by Royal Court veteran James McDonald, and starring Linda Bassett (East is East) and John Heffernan (The Crown), the play speaks to the human propensity to regret what has gone before, and what was never to be, at the expense of the present.
With touches of A Christmas Carol (Basset plays the kind-of “ghosts” of Future, Futures, and Present) and the 1990 hit Truly Madly Deeply (Heffernan’s “Someone” is mourning the loss of his significant other), the play covers well-trodden ground; the importance of hope in the face of mortality, and the lunacy of grief. But that’s oversimplifying: at heart What If If Only is a riddle, with Future’s monologues offering near-simultaneous glimpses of the things that could have happened, but never did, and might yet still, with the effect of cumulative madness.
Personally I found the characterisation of the lead’s despair a little cloying. We see Heffernan’s Someone physically crumble and look beseechingly towards the Heavens, a trope which felt tonally at odds with the play’s striking modernity. But it is Bassett who lends the piece its power; whose sudden appearance provides the motor to a play that could very well have led nowhere. Bassett is captivating in her embodiment of three abstracted characters, switching from a chuckling, devilish figure, to a saintly sprite from one sentence to the next, offering the audience fleeting visions of future wars, climate devastation, and robots. The fantastic lighting design by Prema Mehta serves to amplify these physical changes, casting looming shadows of the actor as each transition occurs.
Ambitious and quietly stylised, the stage’s simple design is effective in containing the madness of the script, without the risk of being overpowering in its starkness. The play’s intentional brevity, meanwhile, could be seen as the wisdom of an ageing dramaturg – this is Chuchill’s 22nd play – who wants their message to ring loud and clear, and to not waste precious time in the process.
In a period of interminable television series, not to mention exceedingly long plays (2018’s The Inheritance clocked in at 7 hours), it’s refreshing to watch a play so short. But in no way is the brevity constricting the material: it arguably packs a greater punch than if it had been twice as long. Besides, there’s no use thinking about what could have been. After all: it “never happened. Other things happened, things you regret happened, things making you say if only what if”.
Until October 23.