Great Britain

Jessica Hynes: 'Love isn't wishy washy – it's strength and power'

‘You’re in a world in which you are effectively at war with nature,” says Jessica Hynes, slurping noodles on her lunch break, “and nature is at war with itself.” Hynes is in rehearsals for the Donmar’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s dystopian Far Away, in which love is strangled at every turn by violence, oceans take sides in humanity’s battles and children’s curiosity is crushed when they ask why older generations aren’t rushing to put out the fires they’ve made. “It’s exquisite,” Hynes says of the prophetic text, first staged in 2000 at the Royal Court. “She’s a legend for good reason.”

Hynes made her name starring in the cult TV comedy Spaced, which she co-wrote with Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. She won a Bafta in 2015 for the BBC parody W1A and again in 2019 for the disability-focused drama There She Goes; most recently she played a radiation-riddled activist in Russell T Davies’ devastating Years and Years. Far Away, which she describes as “a kind of poem”, is her first Churchill play.

Its landscape is a putrid one. The short three-act structure follows Joan and Todd who work at a hat factory, creating extravagant artefacts under the watchful eye of a fearsome dictatorial government. Violence seeps into the everyday as secrets and lies amass, and by the end of the play, every sentient being on Earth is engaged in conflict. “It’s artful and stylistic in some ways,” says Hynes of Churchill’s writing, “but also incredibly natural and almost perfunctory, even though what is really going on is shocking.”

Hynes plays Joan’s morally woozy aunt, Harper, who disguises human screams as owl’s shrieks and piles up lies to hide the bloodstains. “Everyone thinks they’re the good guy,” Hynes says of the character’s morality. “Everyone believes that what they’re doing is for the right reasons.” In a 2016 interview, Hynes said the trait she most deplored in others was dishonesty; in Harper, she has a character whose natural state is to lie. “It’s more complicated than honesty or dishonesty,” she says. “I’m trying to find her humanity, even when it feels like inhumanity.”

Though never ascribed to a particular struggle, Churchill wrote the play in 2000, at the time of the Serbian conflict. “But its brilliance is in the fact that you could take it anywhere,” Hynes says. “It could be 2,000 years in the future or 1,000 years in the past.”

This production draws out the focus on the environment, with the war on nature bought to the fore. Plants and animals are weaponised and divided; the ants side with the Moroccans and the weather joins the fight of the Japanese. It is both a rage against inaction and a shrug against the inevitability of violence stemming from an uncaring, eco-damaging capitalist system. “Normal people are never really the perpetrators,” Hynes figures. “They are the victims of circumstance, of the wider chaos of war.”

Hynes is best known for her comedy, so it feels strange to sit with her and talk earnestly about destruction. Though there is absurdity in Far Away, both in the language (“The cats have come in on the side of the French”) and the action (in the infamous parade scene), the show is not played for laughs. “We’re trying to honour the script completely,” she says, “and do something that feels as faithful and truthful and open as we can make it.”

Harper begins the play by talking about how beautiful the owls are outside her windows, but fast-forward a few years and she sees violence in every wing of a bird or blade of grass. As audience members, we skip the distance between these viewpoints. “We talked about what might have happened in that middle act,” Hynes explains, “to make that slowly encroaching ravaged landscape, with more grief, more loss, more violence, more struggle.” In the first scene, director Lyndsey Turner has Harper weaving a quilt of a natural landscape, building up an image of what is beginning to break down around them.

“War is the enemy of love,” she says. “That seems to be a timeless truth.” Though Far Away tells of a crumbling world, Hynes sees the hope in it. “Watching the strangulation of [the] environment only serves to remind us of the importance of it.” She puts the lid back on her noodles. “And it’s not a wishy-washy term: love. It’s a position of strength and power.”