“What do you mean when you say it has meaning now?”
One of the things I love most about blogging is the honesty with which it allows one to write. So much ‘official’ theatre reviewing (as in for a publication) is predicated on the basis of a perceived authority, on the acceptance of received truths, which due to space constraints are rarely articulated. But I’m not bound by any that here and so I can say I honestly don’t get what all the fuss is about Simon Russell Beale – I’ve yet to see him myself, in a performance that is worthy of being named one of our greatest ever actors – and likewise, I can say that I’m not sure that I get Caryl Churchill as a playwright. I don’t doubt or challenge her position as one of the UK’s most influential playwrights or her impact on contemporary theatre but rather, in the six plays of hers that I have seen, I haven’t had that kind of epiphany that made me stop in my tracks and say ‘this is amazing theatre’.
I’m constantly educating myself theatrically though and that’s where the informality of a blog – my theatrical education in progress if you will – comes into its own, tracing how my opinions can change (I’ve learned to love Chekhov) or not (I still dislike Ibsen, in the main). Thus I happily took the opportunity to see Love and Information, a new Churchill play at the Royal Court, her first since 2009’s controversy-baiting Seven Jewish Children, not least because it features an ensemble cast of extremely high quality.
In this play, directed with an insightful vision by James Macdonald, Churchill has put together a strange world full of random encounters, all revolving around ideas of love, or information, or both. Some scenes are a just a handful of words long, others linger longer on the stage, but all come as a surprise as Miriam Buether’s shutterbox set opens and closes to reveal the next set of characters – major, major kudos has to go the backstage crew who must work like fiends and already seem to have it nailed even at this preview stage). None of the characters have names, none of them reappear which means we get over a hundred by the end, and the scenes are all essentially unrelated. A glimpse at the playtext reveals a lack of stage directions too, and on paper it may seem an intimidatingly obscure experience. But the reality is something much more entertaining, often surreally so, with a strong thread of recognisable humanity, especially in the impulse of needing to tell, that makes it entirely gripping and surprisingly humourous.
The company respond magnificently to the challenge as well. Given just moments to create convincing, engaging scenarios, more often than not they achieve just that and leave wanting to know more about these people, Nikki Amuka-Bord, Rhashan Stone, Amit Shah, Justin Salinger, Susan Engel, everyone is just so damned good. Particular moments that have stayed in my mind though are Sarah Woodward’s delivery of a fantastically gruesome scientific process is superb but also all the more fascinating due to the context in which it is given, John Heffernan’s manic reaction to receiving some red flowers, a moment of quiet connection is given gorgeous life by Amanda Drew and Linda Bassett and a beautiful final scene in which Laura Elphinstone will melt even the hardest of hearts.
Churchill leaves a lot up to the audience. The connections, or otherwise, between the scenes, between all these voices, are left for us to make; the search for meaning that characterises many of the encounters is as much our own journey in sifting through these vignettes to assess what it is that we find most important in our own lives. Have I been converted to the Churchillian school? I perhaps wouldn’t go quite that far, although I would recommend reading this brilliant piece by April De Angelis, and I have no qualms about recommending booking now for this mystifying yet thought-provoking piece of theatre.