Caryl Churchill’s new play Love and Information demands an intense engagement from its audience and certainly, at the matinee I attended, that engagement was there, very intensely indeed.
The play is a series of sketches or random scenes, each with its own title. Through seven sequences it develops, with clinical precision, the general theme of the pain of the imparting of secrets. Some scenes consist of just one line; others are fully-developed pieces but all are beautifully written, performed with brilliance by a large cast and directed with a sharp and knowing aplomb by James Macdonald.
Such is the variety of styles on offer that Churchill seems at times to be parodying Harold Pinter (Torture), Samuel Beckett (Fate), Edward Albee (Climate; Manic), Alan Aykbourn (Wedding Video), Noel Coward (Ex) and, at times, herself (Memory House; Linguist; Wife). Her playfulness and humour keep each piece buoyant and the elliptical style – characters rarely complete sentences or reveal what they truly think or feel – makes us wait on every word. It is a dialogue-driven play and spoken language is seen less as the smokescreen covering the truth, as with Pinter, but more as a problematic tic or mind-mechanism which is capable of generating of all sorts of irrelevant facts or superfluous thought-patterns. There are no named characters, just an intermittent flow of dialogue and this flow occasionally results in emotional stasis, confusion, or, at worst, depression. R.D. Laing's Knots is evoked in the fractured non-sequitors and struggle for conversational meaning as in the richly-comic Recluse, where a Mr Rushmore is forced by a determined media person camped outside his remote doorway to invent an absurd story to satisfy the shouted interrogation.
There is a subtext of spiritual search amid all the excessive talk and information-overload. In the quietly compelling God's Voice a character tries to explain to another the reality of prayer: "I was praying about it - in words - sometimes in words, sometimes just silently." Churchill is one of the few dramatists today who, no doubt influenced by her interest in Buddhism, articulates the spiritual longings of her characters. The desire for spiritual meaning obtrudes occasionally in sly, misleading comic pieces, like God, which is actually a sharp, clever questioning distillation of Meister Eckhart’s theology – "So does God have a higher god to give his existence meaning?" – as discussed by two people who haven’t a clue what they’re talking about. The play, like much of Churchill’s work, wears its intellectualism lightly. One can already foresee the doctoral theses which might be written. This dramatist does not preach, however; she involves us in her relentless quest, wanting to entertain first.
The play is about twenty minutes too long: after one hour and fifty minutes without an interval it does not so much end as suddenly stop. Macdonald manages the disconnected sequences fluently, with clever sound design by Christopher Shutt preparing the audience thematically for what is to come next. Throughout the play a number of characters – there are over a hundred in all – try to say "I love you" or try to declare the depth of their feeling to some other person. They are thwarted at each turn by the need to off-load a quantity of soulless information. There is a critique here of the internet age’s obsession with irrelevant facts, the bombardment of humanity with information from every quarter and an almost heartfelt plea for the voice of true feeling to be heard once in a while.
In the final scene one person manages to get such a word in as she admits, almost apologetically, that yes, she does love someone. The point might have been made within a much shorter running-time: a new writer presenting this script could have been accused of self-indulgence. But Churchill has the last laugh: we are submitted to the very information-overload her characters find so disorientating.
The clinical set design by Miriam Buether of a white-tiled square box serves to focus each scene as it were taking place in a laboratory. If you are interested in the way contemporary drama is moving, go and see Love and Information. It’s a fascinating play.