'love and information' review or 'You get the theatre you deserve.'

'love and information', Caryl Churchill
Royal Court Theatre, Wednesday 19th September 2012

The Royal Court stage, when it's not blocked off by a black screen, is surrounded by a black and white prism. This stark design, by Miriam Buether, looks a lot like The Matrix. In the film, those who were made aware of The Matrix and the data it stored and controlled, finally had an opportunity to take control of their lives. In Caryl Churchill's play, it's as if all that stored data has been unleashed on the characters; only they don't know what it means and they're still blissfully unaware of the control it holds over their everyday existence.

In another filmic reference, the scenes (and there are hell of a lot of them), flash by us at a dizzying rate. No sooner have they begun, then they are slammed shut; the stage goes black, a soundtrack hints at the scene to come and we wait, in anticipation, for the next onslaught. It's a lot like those moments in a film when one sees into a character's mind and his fear, excitement or happiness is represented by a flurry of images. The images seem random but, when combined, they create powerful emotional reactions. Here, Churchill's flood of images makes one feel dazed, excited and – disappointingly but perhaps consciously – profoundly unsatisfied.

The staccato scenes are separated into 7 different categories, all of which look at a different aspect of how we process information. Section 1, in which a lady describes her painstaking attempts to analyse a chicken's brain or a man is bombarded by pointless questionnaires, is about extracting information. Section 2 is about dangerous information, Section 3 explores what happens when information is handled incorrectly (9/11 anyone?), Section 4 is about lost information, Section 5 looks at information that is too complex to really comprehend (Israel/Palestine gets a one-line look in), Section 6 touches on our inability to process pain and Section 7 explores our attempts to make sense of the senseless stuff in life.

At least, that's how I processed the data chucked at me from the stage. The problem is, as soon as one realises these sections are variations on the same theme, one can't resist the urge to categorise them. It feels like a game. And it feels a little like the joke is on us; a typically clever Churchill touch, where the structure and point of the play work together. As I smugly identify each 'topic', I can hear Churchill cheekily whispering in my ear: You think you're in control? You think this is all that life is? You think just because you recognise what these scenes are saying that you really understand them?

The other 'joke' that Churchill plays here is the way she highlights our eroding concentration spans. This play feels like a provocation for a generation brought up in an age of twitter feeds, facebook updates and constant texting. This is all you're good for now, Churchill almost sneers. You want to live in a world in which 5 minutes is considered a lifetime? Well, this is what it will make if your theatre. This is what it will make of your life.

Provocative and stupidly clever stuff, then. But one does go away thinking about the meta-concerns rather than the meaty stuff on stage (hence no mention of the actors in this review). This is a compelling and important play but it makes me a little bit sad, too. Churchill has made her point – brilliantly. But next time, I hope she writes a play that doesn't give us what we deserve but what we really need instead.


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