Is “Love and Information” the funniest and sharpest sketch show in town or theater’s most audacious enquiry into the nature of how we perceive and navigate our way through the world? Both. Aside from the sheer verve and pace of James Macdonald’s scintillating production, what makes Caryl Churchill’s latest play so exhilarating is the way she makes audiences complicit in its undoubted success.
Peter Mumford’s bright light snaps up on an unnamed couple revealed in a pristine, graph-paper-like white box, one of whom (Amit Shah) is begging the other (Nikki Amuka-Bird) to reveal a secret. She’s intent on withholding it and the tension between them is as gripping as it is immediate. Despite his amusing entreaties, she stands firm, but then she caves in, only to whisper it into his ear. He is stunned and, barely one minute into the play, terrified: “Now what?” he cries, to be greeted by an instant blackout.
Seconds later, the lights are back up with a completely different couple in a wholly different situation in the same white box. And that’s the format for the entire play. Self-conscious as that might sound, it’s exactly like watching a quick-fire comedy sketch show. Presented with fresh characters and situations one after another — Macdonald’s 16 actors play 100 characters in 58 fleet scenes — audiences get better and better at playing detective, grabbing cunningly planted clues in the form of snippets of often laugh-out-loud dialogue and vividly presented relationships.
Solving the puzzle as to who, where and what is happening in each snapshot scene, several lasting barely 30 seconds, is part of the fun. Sometimes it’s Laura Hopkins’ expressive costumes that tell you everything you need to know, as in Amanda Drew’s sudden appearance in a ludicrously fuchsia ballgown with her dancing partner. At other times, audiences are clued-in by Christopher Shutt’s immediately evocative sound design, which cunningly ushers in each scene and sets up expectations or locations via found and created sounds and aural atmospheres.
Yet for all the droll comedy of the juxtapositions in this kaleidoscope of contemporary duos — friends, enemies, lovers, strangers, patients, colleagues, children, parents — Churchill’s cumulative vision is often bleak. She paints a huge group portrait of people struggling to pay attention. In a world delighted, nay obsessed, by information coming at us faster and faster, how can we function, listen and love? The fact that characters dealing with depression are laced through the evening suggests that for all the ways we find of surviving, many cannot cope.
What makes the evening triumphant is that such ideas aren’t debated, they’re made flesh. Nor do you need a cultural studies degree to draw conclusions: Her intent is clear theatrically rather than intellectually. The act of watching, of processing the information, is what the play is about. The content, in other words, is indivisible from the play’s unique form.
The achievement of the production is all the more remarkable given that the script is almost completely devoid of stage directions. There are no locations, no named characters, only lines of dialogue. No two productions of this play will resemble another.
Technically, Macdonald’s Royal Court production is a triumph. Part of the abundant pleasure is the sheer speed with which the invisible technical team replace one set with another, fifty-eight times, in lickety-split scene changes. It’s the kind of show you want to see a second time from backstage.
Ever since her gender-switch casting in “Cloud Nine” (1979), which ran two years Off Broadway, the wildly influential Churchill has consistently proven herself to be Britain’s most innovative dramatist. In recent years, she has incorporated approaches routinely used in conceptual art.
The latter is often criticized for offering a recipe rather than a satisfying meal, its ideas more worthwhile than experiencing the work itself. “Love and Information” is a vastly entertaining riposte to all that. Churchill depicts a world increasingly fractured by information overload, with people struggling with the possibility of love and hope. Her dramatic representation of it could not be more intoxicating.