Love and Information review (Malthouse, Melbourne)

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This is a protean, quick-change drama of very many voices and very many scenes. It has the voices of young people and old people; it has brothers and sisters, parents and children; it has people of different races and different classes. There are cruel people, unwell people, traumatised people, dog people, virtual people, sensualists, intellectuals, spiritualists and scientists. There are people going about their everyday business. And there are people in love. A hundred pairs of eyes — brown, green, white, magenta, neon-blue eyes — stare out at us from the stream of bright sketches and changing patterns of feeling.

This is Caryl Churchill’s 45th full-length play, first performed in 2012, and it is what theatre ought to be. Everything in Love and Information has energy, imagination and theatrical muscle. And everything else seems lumbering and longwinded beside it.

There are, we are told, 70 different scenes in this production. They are contemporary, first-world scenes, but nonetheless cover a vast range of human matter. There is a couple bickering about global warming, lovers recalling passions past, family secrets, nautical semaphore, road crews discussing the voice of God, the Brothers Grimm, an RNA codon table, a man who gets disturbing messages from traffic lights, the interpretation of dreams at a water cooler, multiple bad dates, a date that seems to be going well, a visit to the museum of natural history and much, much, much more.

There is no narrative continuity, and there are no recurring characters; but there are countless possible thematic and affective interconnections. And it’s this seemingly limitless number of possibilities that thrills. There runs beneath the division of the play into discrete scenes a continuous, unifying flow of sense and feeling, a teeming multiplicity that carries you – breathless and provoked – from beginning to end.

In this co-production between the Malthouse and the Sydney Theatre Company, the action takes place in what might be a sort of white-walled laboratory, a place to study successive, mutant forms. Designer David Fleischer furnishes this bare set with movable white blocks and a few simple props, enough to give specificity to each new scene: a glass of wine, a television, a potted tree or a bouquet of red flowers.

Despite the lightning pace, director Kip Williams (resident director at the STC) puts it all together as neat and snug as the stacked white blocks. The cast are sharp, versatile, rapid in their transformations and clever about their business, whether comic or tragic. There are many fragments here to treasure: Ursula Yovich confronting an employer who tried to sack her by email or Harry Greenwood as a surly teenager who loses a sister but gains a mother or Marco Chiappi in a scene that lasts only a few seconds declaring that he doesn’t feel sorry.

There are scenes about both our desire for information and our fear of information. There are scenes about how we receive information, present information, retain information and withhold information from others. There are vignettes on the nature of memory and on the way the brain gleans meaning from experiences — or fails to. Difficult questions about scientific progress are sketched. And there are plenty of variations on the theme of love. We see how love affects our understanding, and the way new facts affect our love.

Are love and information two different, antagonistic ways of looking at the universe? Are we being invited to see life as a necessary double helix of loving and learning? As two strands of being, connected and necessarily snarled?

In a director’s note in the program, Kip Williams partly explains the unique challenge of Churchill’s text. The script contains seven sections, each with seven scenes, except the last section which has eight scenes. The scenes must be played in order, but there are 16 extra scenes that can be added — or not added — at any point. Each scene has a title, but the dialogue is entirely unattributed and no context is given for any of the scenes. It’s all for the theatre-makers to invent.

It’s difficult – it’s meant to be difficult – to draw anything so certain from this wondrous, faceted production. Different people will see different brilliancies.

Williams’ production is consistently bright and snappy, vivid even in its funeral scenes; although he is almost half a century younger than Churchill, Williams is an ideal interpreter for this preternaturally inspired playwright. They’re both artists who strive always to get the most from theatre as a medium, constantly testing the formal limits of what can be done on stage.

Of course, this production could be tightened in parts, and no doubt will be by the time it gets to Sydney next month. Perhaps there is a lack of subtlety in the way one or two scenes have been imagined, while in others there is some lingering uncertainty about the way the lines are distributed, but that is to be expected: Love and Information is a play that – to an unusual degree – makes one attentive to the processes of invention behind the scenes. It encourages the audience to speculate and to debate, and it makes one curious to know how others might have treated the same material, to know what other possible dramas remain secret within this miraculous bare text.

Read our interview with Kip Williams

Read Ask an Expert: Dr Fiona MGregory’s guide to Caryl Churchill  

[box]Love and Information is at Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne until July 4 and then moves to Sydney. Featured image by Pia Johnson[/box]

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