at the Royal Court Theatre, Wednesday 12th September 2012
I don’t like blackouts. I think I’ve made my opinion on that matter pretty clear in the last couple of months. Now, let me qualify that statement. Blackouts are, I feel, an outmoded and outdated way to surreptitiously change a set. Generally, they slow down a production and make us think about something else entirely while our attention should be on the play. Few people, I imagine, genuinely ‘like’ the damn things, but I imagine most see them as a necessary evil. I don’t. Speaking from experience, there is pretty much always a more interesting way a scene can be changed than blacking out the lights and then bumping props around in the dark; most of the time a blackout is entered into the prompt book without much thought, simply as the easiest way of getting something done.
But I may have just been converted. A little. I’ve now seen that blackouts can be useful. Hell, they can be down-right necessary. If it wasn’t for those moments of visual bliss in Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, the play would be utterly indigestible.
The play is written as a score of vignettes, lasting between ten seconds and five minutes each, with titles like “Dinner” and “Fate” (though that information can only be gleaned from the playtext). It’s relentless. Thankfully, director James MacDonald gives us time in between each of the pieces to briefly mull over what’s just happened before the lights go up again. These moments are integral to the production; without them, we would be thinking about the last piece during the current one.
The first ten minutes are tough going. It takes a while to get used to this style, and the stop-and-start technique forces us to shift our mindset to one of hyper-awareness rather than the normal one of consumption with which we often enter a theatre. We sit up. We listen.
This structure ends up acting like a kind of breathing mechanism. During the moments of action, it’s like we’re breathing in, soaking up information and allowing what is happening on stage to fill us. Then, during the darkness, we exhale, feeling the thoughts tumble out in preparation for the next one. There’s something quite cleansing about it.
Ok, so enough about bloody blackouts, what’s the play about? Well, everything, really. Churchill splits the play into seven sections which could be given loose headings like “Truth”, “Memory” and “Feeling” (all of which could be suffixed with ‘and lack of’), but that’s a slightly reductionist viewpoint to take and demeans somewhat the vision of the world which she’s put together. Rather, they are individual moments of people’s lives, which generally start a second ‘too late’ and finish a second ‘too soon’, so that we don’t get bogged down in the ins-and-outs of what’s actually going on but rather examine the human relationships which are occurring and the questions they throw up.
It’s perhaps a little counterintuitive to discuss individual scenes given the play is more important as a whole rather than separate parts, but a few deserve a mention for the questions they raise (it’s important to note that I’m here discussing the interpretations given in MacDonald’s production. Were you to read the text in isolation, you may have an entirely different opinion). “Remote” shows a woman lodging in the country with her friend/relative, who explains that she’ll have no connection with the outside world, as Churchill demonstrates our disconnect with reality considering our reliance on technology. Another is an indictment on the way in which we rely on photos and videos to jog our memory, as if we can’t connect with the past unless we have a hard copy, showing a family watching a wedding video, with the mother admitting “I wouldn’t remember all this if without the video I wouldn’t remember hardly anything at all”. A handful discuss scientific or mathematic concepts and their relation to or distance from our everyday lives.
Each scene, then, acts as a cross between a theatrical joke and a mini-drama (though, naturally, some are funnier or more dramatic than others). A premise is set up before being thrown up in the air, twisted, and allowed to fall, creating a loud guffaw or a shattering silence. Every single scene, no matter how short, contains within it a tension of some sort (often not, perhaps, clear within Churchill’s text but discovered by MacDonald and his cast). It wouldn’t be entirely wrong to sum up her back-catalogue as, by and large, adhering to this principle of questioning and interrogating a dilemma, meaning that Love and Information basically gives us fifty-odd Churchill plays in the space of two hours.
The printed text itself is of importance (naturally, this is true of all plays, but here the script is of particular interest). Churchill explains “The sections should be played in the order given but the scenes can be played in any order within each section”. Like Simon Stephens’ Pornography, then, Love and Information gives a company freedom over how to perform the piece, laying the onus on them to decide which scenes and characters deserve to be given the most credence. It is also suggested that “There are random scenes … which can happen at any time”. Flicking to the back of the text, some of these scenes are simply stage directions (“Someone sneezes“) or one line snippets (“there’s an exhibition of expressionist”) which find themselves presented in performance in different ways (the two examples just given are actually combined). Crucially, this is a script which makes a clear decision not to be prescriptive, and represents a style of playwriting which, like Stephens and Kane, allows for more plurality and liberty in interpretation. The focus is taken off the individual and placed on collaboration.
MacDonald plays a shrewd move by creating – to put it simply – a rather traditional production. Each scene is played end-on, in the same space, with minimal props. The only actors on stage are those speaking the lines. Initially, this seems to be like a bit of a cop-out, for Churchill’s writing lends itself to any number of exciting, dynamic stagings (an interpretation in the same style as 13 or Decade wouldn’t have been at all surprising). What is created instead, however, is a blank canvas. Miriam Buether’s cell-like, gridded box-set is a Hall-esque Empty Space, meaning that every audience member will project onto it their own thoughts and feelings about each individual vignette. Like a camera, the blinds are snapped shut as the scene is quickly changed, before we find ourselves in another setting, recognisable but markedly different from the last. By doing this, the slate is kept clean for any number of subsequent productions.
It feels a little perverse to consider individual performances in the piece after such a discussion on form and content, but the style employed is important to an understanding of the production as a whole. Like Buether’s set, the actors, too, are a little bit like blank canvases. I understand that’s a potentially offensive statement to make, so let me explain. Having been given such a small amount of information to work with in each scene, the ensemble could easily fall into the trap of over-emoting and playing to demonstrate clarity where it is not present, but instead all we are given is the words with a considered, appropriate emotion. In “Memory House”, Amanda Drew and John Heffernan just enjoy the process of going through a list of objects, and are kind of playing themselves playing the scene, while Linda Bassett and Sarah Woodward both manage to be hilarious in the aforementioned sneeze scene, even though they are only given seconds to make a point. But that’s the idea; the actors are not urgently trying to “make a point” or “find a laugh” but simply say the words with some uncovered meaning. This comes to head in the final scene, “Facts”, which sees Rhashan Stone and Laura Elphinstone essentially declare their love for one another whilst revising for a quiz. It’s a beautiful, romantic moment (some may say sentimental and soppy, I say beautiful and romantic) which is successful due to its lack of “acting”. The entire cast surrounds them, seated or standing. There is a story in the way each is situated; you could deconstruct this scene alone for hours.
Love and Information is the theatrical version of searching through videos on YouTube, both catering to and commenting on our impatient, multi-voiced, complex modern lifestyles. A stream of ideas and images mimics the thousands of images we are subjected to daily, though here we are given welcome respite between each rather than the visual bombardment we have to put up with on the Tube. Each scene is a carefully crafted piece of drama which considers, in some way or another, the sheer magnitude of information which we have to cope with.