Theatre

Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information is drama down to its bones, with so much living in the spaces in-between.

By Peter Craven.

Love and Information – a dazzling piece of theatre

A scene from Kip Williams’ production of Love and Information.
Credit: PIA JOHNSON

It lifts the heart to see a new play by Caryl Churchill being performed with the sweep and brightness of this Kip Williams production of Love and Information. It’s rich and dynamic to the point of engaging in an almost decorative dialectic with the play’s minimalism, but you can scarcely argue when the effect is as magically, as spaciously and moodily dramatic as this. It constantly enlivens the eye and feeds the imagination with new and brilliant constructions of dramatic space. And the cast, which includes Alison Whyte, Anita Hegh and Zahra Newman, builds a wholly credible and incidentally Australian dramatic idiom out of these fragments of hypothetical drama, these found objects of a world of inherent dramatic illusion deliberately voided of context that nonetheless run together to create an all-but-infinite sense of human life as it can be sketched, whether as comedy or excruciation. Whether we’re listening to Marco Chiappi’s deep, beautiful, actorly voice or the piping of Ursula Yovich, Love and Information, in Williams’ hands, is a dazzling piece of theatre in honour of one of the masters of contemporary drama. 

Caryl Churchill is in her mid-70s now and her endlessly changing and vibrant dramatic art has outlasted the fashions and the fictions, the fixations, out of which it might seem to have been made. The horses Churchill rode in with – the feminism, the leftism, the querying of gender stereotypes and the queering of every pitch of naturalism the theatre is heir to – are not surface irritations or slogans in her hands but the viable masks of a provisional faith in the drama’s ability to evolve into new and interesting shapes. These new forms never remain separate from (in fact they are integral to) a quest for dramatic truth that can make Churchill seem like the true successor to Beckett, though a successor with a broader sense of the folk served by the art, a less austere experimentalism. In Churchill’s theatre (even though it is always creating hoops to jump through, rhyming couplets as the medium of a neoclassical economic liberalism in Serious Money, for instance) there’s also a demotic side to her talent, a relish for the trashiness of the everyday, for the throwaway populaire. Like the late David Foster Wallace, she can seem a true postmodernist because she goes to the heart of the enigma of representation and is not afraid of how little may be there. 

What’s the phrase from Wallace Stevens? “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” In any case, Love and Information is one of those skeletal late works that teases in its sketchiness because it leaves out almost everything so that the ghosts of dramatic electricity howl through the bones of a space that is irreducibly dramatic, even though it seems to be constituted by so many traces of a colour so bled that it is all but absent. The play is made up of seventysomething vignettes of drama, plucked from a world of possibility, some going for quite a few minutes, some a matter of snatched or screeched words. 

A young woman’s been dreaming of things (black birds, dark skies, you name it) and whenever she looks it up on the computer it spells adultery. So go for it, his woman’s been cheating, or maybe it means them; oh well, go for it anyway.

 A young man – one of the Harry Greenwood characters – lanky and lithe, sprawls, telling two women he can’t feel pain, there’s no signal to his brain. They tickle him, they pinch him, he does things back – the puzzle and the strangeness and the recognition have the eerie richness of a recognition compelled by dream. 

Zahra Newman stands ready to dive to oblivion from one of the white building blocks as someone whispers sage words of comfort that do not work. Ursula Yovich talks from under a road worker’s hat of how she hears the voice of God and of course He speaks English. Don’t be silly, she says, His voice comes from inside. 

The quality of this wonderful late work of Churchill’s is irrecoverable from such tesserae because it’s made up of fragments of mundane life that are charged with a variable freight of triviality and can, at the same time, be deeply moving. 

The Glenn Hazeldine figure is accused of never feeling anything without a psychological label and flees across the stage wincing with recognition and disdain. Anthony Taufa, with some impairment, refuses to recognise his wife. When she says she knows what he likes to do, he says it’s disgusting that she can pretend to be his wife. Chiappi, who is afflicted with memory loss, too – with Alzheimer’s – cannot recognise anyone and declares that he cannot play the piano and then does. The effect might as well be the music of the spheres. 

When Chekhov was asked what a carrot meant, he said, “A carrot is a carrot, nothing further is known”. There is plenty of talk, glidingly clever, associative talk about the way the act of love, the potential procreative act of a sexual gambit, is the attempt on the part of the species to imprint and preserve information. There are plenty of gestures about the heart-rending nature of the loss of memory that can seem to (but doesn’t quite) constitute the self.

So there’s the withdrawal of the wave of information, though not the poignancy of the condition of love in which these characters exist. And beyond this, but with the most powerful sense of “nothing further is known”, there is the deep tragicomedy of human connection and disconnection. All of which is in this late, great text, every line of which is clear as day, despite the residual artiness on Churchill’s part of not indicating when a separate character is speaking.

Williams and his actors do Love and Information like a dream, with a spectacular effectiveness that socks the heart and humbles the intellect. You get some sense that this mob of eight actors vary a bit in histrionic talent (in vocal endowment or physical expressiveness) but it ceases to matter because they seem to exist within such a circle of affection, both in terms of the direction and in how they hold each other up. (That said, Hegh is the member of the ensemble who seems to have an implicit sense of every move Churchill makes.) The play is performed with a dense, throbbing electro soundtrack with strobe effects climatically and with coups de théâtre such as Whyte and Greenwood standing stock still as hairy cavepeople in a museum exhibit, which includes statuary of – I don’t know – brown anteaters or wild prehistoric pigs or whatever. These effects are both gratuitous and utterly winning. 

Essentially, David Fleischer’s design is just so many white blocks that can be made to simulate cliffs or living rooms or whatever, and which the actors rush to reassemble at the many scene changes. The lighting by Paul Jackson is flooded with moodiness and variation, often grey-gold, sometimes deep purple, a virtuoso palette. And that can be true of the dashes of colour in the costuming. There looks like a deliberate play on a historic feminist colour scheme – tingling pinks and vibrant violets – on top of the essential bareness and whiteness of the constantly reconfigured non-set. The effect is all at once marvellous and a bit overindulged. 

You get the sense of Williams as a director who could do anything – in Sydney recently he equipped that far-from-small-play Suddenly, Last Summer with Big Brother cameras – and then proceeds to do it. The saturated dazzle of the colour when it is allowed to dominate seems to dramatise the director’s awareness of just how much this late-minimalist play is open to interpretation, and in that sense it can be just a bit playful with itself, just a little bit preening in its self-delight. 

It scarcely matters. Williams’ production of Churchill’s Love and Information makes you feel you are in the presence of a great dramatic work and you are lucky to see it performed with such somersaulting truth and imagination.

It should also be said that the acting in this impassioned and beautifully co-ordinated production is superb in a way that’s dumbfounding because we so rarely see it. Whyte has the kind of perfect musical pitch and precision we associate with the great ladies of the British stage. Yovich has a gleaming naturalness that seems, remarkably, to be life itself. And Greenwood brings to his performance a real depth and seriousness of purpose: there is none of the swanking narcissism that tempts you to ban young men from the Australian stage. This is in miniature a panoramic demonstration of the richness of our acting and everyone should see it.

Arts diary

• DANCE   Ballet Revolución

Concert Hall, QPAC, Brisbane, July 9-12

• VISUAL ART  Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards 2015

Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until October 12

• THEATRE  Ladies in Lavender

Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, until August 15

• DANCE  Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Lore

Canberra Theatre Centre, July 9-11

• VISUAL ART Abstraction: The Heide Collection

Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until October 11

Last chance

• THEATRE  Love and Information 

Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, Melbourne, July 4

• CINEMA  Biennale of Moving Images 

MONA, Hobart, until July 6 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 4, 2015 as "Stripped bare". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.