“More than a hundred characters try to make sense of what they know” is how the Royal Court describes Caryl Churchill’s latest work. It is joined at the Court in a couple of weeks by an unrelated 30-minute piece, Ding Dong The Wicked, suggesting that, 40 years on from her Sloane Square debut, the 74-year-old playwright is in a prolific phase. For Love and Information is not so much one play as 58 playlets, grouped into seven sections plus a coda and arbitrarily ordered within each section. All but a few of the scenes are two-handers, played out in a white tiled cube of a set; the cast of 16 includes names such as Nikki Amuka-Bird, Justin Salinger, Linda Bassett, Amanda Drew, Paul Jesson and Rhashan Stone. James Macdonald’s production lasts 110 minutes in all, without an interval. As for what happens . . .
People speak. People listen. People respond. Or sometimes they don’t. They speak principally about personal matters (it was 80 minutes in that I first noticed a Big Issue of the kind that Churchill often addresses more directly): memories, infidelities, secrets, dreams, banalities, mnemonic techniques . . . pretty much all human life is here, in terms of content, of relationships between characters, and of the nature of the responses.
Is Churchill making a comment about the volume of stuff we are routinely called upon to process nowadays? Quite possibly, but there is no palpable authorial position being taken; the evening is illustrative rather than argumentative. However, each section includes a “Depression” scene whose text consists of a single incomplete line; taken together they show beautifully the reality of the condition itself and the various ways in which others react to sufferers. Perhaps Churchill is implying that depression is a natural response to contemporary information overload, but she clearly understands the what and the how of it regardless of the why.
One cybernetic definition of information is the amount of unpredictability in a message; in that sense, a jukebox musical or a Whitehall farce, say, carries virtually no information, but no more does a piece by Samuel Beckett or Howard Barker. Churchill’s assemblage, by contrast, covers so much ground so swiftly that, even though the play’s words themselves bear little coherent information, its demonstration to us of how we live, think and feel today is intensively informative.