Play by the rules: STC & Malthouse’s Love and Information

Caryl Churchill’s plays are renowned for their intellectual rigour and their political preoccupations, as much as for pushing the boundaries of what theatre can be, what it can do. In Love and Information, Churchill turns her attention to not just one idea or issue, but rather Life, in all its complexities and intricacies, and examines the concepts of space, rhythm, time, language, connections, relationships, and identity, as both fixed and fluid notions. Presented here by the Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, Love and Information ripples with an unbridled wit, compassion, and a sense of precision which is truly mind-boggling.

Churchill’s play, as a text, is as bold as it is unconventional. Essentially open with regards to how it is structured, it is broken down into numerous sections, and follows several rules:
  1. Sections A to G each have seven scenes that all must be played. Sections A to G must be played in their alphabetical order, but the seven scenes within each section can be performed in any order.
  2. Section H has ten scenes. At least one scene from Section H must be played. It can be played at any point (including within any previous section).
  3. Section J has sixteen scenes. The scenes from Section J are not compulsory at all. Any number of them can be played and they can be played at any point (including within any previous section).
  4. There is one scene that must be played at the end.
These rules provide a framework so open to interpretation that there are anywhere between fifty-one and seventy-six scenes you can see on stage in any one production, and around 3.18septillion different combinations on scene order.
You can imagine, then, the sense of trepidation that faced the team behind this production. Led by director Kip Williams, however, the result is mesmerising, poetic, and intimately choreographed to within an inch of its life – scene changes happen with such lightning-fast precision, that props are often brought on by one actor at a run and deposited on stage before they run off again, all in a matter of seconds. Other scenes, like the one in which we find ourselves in a natural history museum, take longer to set up, but the pay-off at its conclusion is more than worth it. David Fleischer’s set is a large white box which fills the Wharf 1 theatre; rather than seeming empty, it creates a blank canvas for Williams and his collaborators to realise Churchill’s scenes upon with haunting poetry and generosity. A series of white rectangular blocks are the only other items of set, which are shifted and moved into different positions – everything from a swimming pool, to plinths, gravestones, tables, chairs – as the scenes require them. Lit by Paul Jackson with bold slabs of colour which would make James Turrell blush, and underscored by THE SWEATS’ pulsating electronic music, the transitions create the other half of the magic in this production. Like the number of possible scene combinations, how many ways can a white block be used to convey something entirely different?
The scenes are a mix of monologues, two-handers, and group scenes, some consisting of a single word, others lasting no more than a few seconds, while others still last four or five minutes. While a full list of the scenes played can be found in the program, particular highlights include the scenes about a child who does not know what fear is, the child who cannot feel pain; ‘Earthquake’, ‘Silence’; ‘Manic’, ‘God’. The image created in the scene titled ‘Grief’ is mesmerizing – simple lighting and stagecraft convey something more powerful than words can. The final (mandatory) scene – ‘Facts’ – is beautiful too, and encapsulates, I think, everything Churchill is trying to say in Love and Information: underneath our daily lives, which are so often dictated and determined by supposedly ‘smart’ technology, there are a myriad of connections, memories, interactions, some made, others missed, (though, perhaps, none made truly in vain), and it is up to us to try to find the useful bits of information amongst them, the things which matter to us; try to find the emotional heart at the core of things, what means something to us, who means something to us, and treasure it – them.  Each scene – in one way or another, sooner or later – is about love and information; it is up to us to work out exactly how.
Williams’ cast of eight embody well over one hundred characters (225 at a quick count in the program) with skill and ease. While no ‘character’ appears in more than one scene (not really) – nor are they ever named – each feels distinct and unique. Harry Greenwood has a cheeky charisma; Marco Chiappi exudes warmth and authority; Glenn Hazeldine brings energy and good-humour; Anita Hegh brings humility and grace; Zahra Newman brings character and fast-talking wit; Anthony Taufa brings an earthy honesty; Alison Whyte brings dignity; and Ursula Yovich brings clarity and truth. Each scene, each character, seems a window into our lives, and ripples with experience and integrity, not just from Churchill but from the cast as well.

While there are people who will see Love and Information as byte-sized theatre for an audience with a small attention-span, it is so much more than that. Underneath Churchill’s audacious conceit in writing a play which will be uniquely different each time it is produced, is a confounding, beautiful, flabbergasting, and haunting look at who we are, where we are going, and how we behave. Director Kip Williams likens the playto a Dali painting or Woolf novel, [in that] the more you reflect, the more you get out of it.” Like Woolf and Dali, it doesn’t talk down to us but meets us as intellectual equals, asks us to match it with investment and courage, and rewards us with heart, compassion, and insight in equal measure. More than anything else, Love and Information is bold, fresh, ground-breaking, and just a little bit brilliant. 

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