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Caryl Churchill is one of the most influential and significant contemporary British dramatists working today. The author of more than 30 plays, as well as a number of adaptations and translations, she has reshaped the theatre landscape and continues to produce adventurous new work.
Churchill was born in London in 1938. After the Second World War her family moved to Canada. Upon returning to England to attend university, Churchill started writing, and her earliest plays – including Downstairs and You've No Need to be Frightened, Having a Wonderful Time – were performed by Oxford student theatre companies.
After graduating from Oxford in 1960, Churchill initially wrote plays for radio. By the early 1970s she was writing for the professional stage, and became Resident Dramatist at the Royal Court Theatre from 1974 to 1975. During this time she made work with feminist collective Monstrous Regiment and with Joint Stock.
In 1976 Churchill wrote Vinegar Tom, a play that uses the witchcraft trials of the 17th century to explore ideas of gender and power. But it was her 1979 two-act comedy of colonialism Cloud 9, created in collaboration with Joint Stock and produced at the Royal Court, which brought her work to wider attention and won her an Obie Award. She went on to win a second Obie for Top Girls (1982), famed for its opening dinner party scene featuring famous women from history.
There’s a richness and variety to Churchill’s work that makes it difficult to categorise, but feminist thinking runs through much of her writing, and throughout her career she has experimented with language, structure and form. Her work is often non-naturalistic and occasionally surreal. Her 1987 play Serious Money was written in verse, and looked at Thatcherism and the stock market crash. Her 1994 play The Skriker further explores the elasticity of language in its depiction of an ancient, shape-shifting entity.
Churchill’s 2002 two-hander A Number addresses the subject of human cloning, and has, on several occasions, been performed by father and son acting duos, including Timothy and Samuel West. Her 2012 play Love and Information consists of a series of 50 fragmented and seemingly unrelated scenes.
She often shuns stage directions, and much of her recent work has leaned towards brevity. Her short plays include the controversial Seven Jewish Children, Ding Dong the Wicked and Pigs and Dogs. Her most recent full-length play Escaped Alone premiered at the Royal Court in 2016. There have been a number of high-profile revivals of her work in recent years and Rufus Norris kicked off his tenure as artistic director at the National Theatre with Lyndsey Turner’s revival of Churchill’s English Civil War play, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire.
In 2008 Churchill’s 70th birthday was marked with a retrospective at the Royal Court.
Bidisha explores gender, class and inequality in Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls.
Since its premiere at the Royal Court Theatre in 1982, Max Stafford-Clark has directed numerous productions of Top Girls, Caryl Churchill’s ground-breaking feminist play. The British Library talks with Stafford-Clark about the play’s political context and why he called it the ‘Best play I’ve ever directed’.
Dan Rebellato explains how John Osborne's Look Back in Anger changed the course of British theatre.