As fleeting as your Newsfeed [by James Wenley]
This year research came out claiming that our attention spans were now shorter than a goldfish’s. Whereas in 2000 we could hold a thought for 12 seconds, now it is down to 8.
Why do I mention this? Oh yes – Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information may well be a vision for theatre’s future, perfect for a YouTube and Smartphone generation ready to see what’s on the next app or tab.
The thing with Love and Information is that, to quote director Cameron Rhodes, there up to “76 scenes, over 100 characters, and no narrative”. Most of the scenes are short. Really short. Rhodes makes a running gag of piling a whole lot of actors onstage, creating a stage picture, starting a scene, and then bringing the lights down on the actors mid–
For example, one scene consists of a character saying to another: “We could go for a walk, it’s a beautiful — ”. And that’s it.
Where was I? Oh yes – following 2063 from Unitec’s graduating class of actors, The Actors’ Program are second out of the gate with their production. As choices to mark the actors’ entry into the industry, they couldn’t be further apart. Unitec have made a new devised show, The Actors’ Program are grappling with an intricate and demanding 2012 text from a British legend. Love and Information fits snuggly in The Basement, and could in fact pass as a sophisticated Young & Hungry play. Churchill’s got her finger on the touchscreen.
A staple of acting training is the subtext exercise. You get a piece of text, with no stage directions, and you must discover a context for the scene, who the characters are, and what they really mean underneath their dialogue. It’s the bread and butter of an actor’s process. Love and Information is that exercise writ large.
Churchill only gives a few instructions. There are seven chapters which must be played in order, but the scenes within each chapter can be jumbled around. So the settings and contexts are entirely invented by the company: a ballet school, rugby training, a gallery exhibit, a game of Wii, a —
Sometimes these seem to fit perfectly, other times they seem like a distraction, an idea pulled out of the ether because they just need something different.
While the structure can be fluid, and the scenes can seem entirely arbitrary, as the play goes on and you begin to glimpse its scope, you can appreciate how finely calibrated Churchill’s writing is. Thematically it returns again and again to religious belief, attempts at connection, and, pertinently, memory retention.
Watching an old VHS of a wedding, a character recalls they can only remember what is shown on the tape and nothing else of the day. This later chimes against a character with perfect recall, who can remember what they did on a specific day in 1998.
What was my point? Oh yes – the cumulative effect. The number of scenes and moments begin to blur into one another. Preparing for this review, I begin to doubt which actors appeared in which scene. I acknowledge just how tenuous a grip I have on my own memory.
Which makes for a rather powerful feeling to take from the work. It’s our modern condition of information overload. The scenes are like Tweets or posts, at the top of your feed for one moment, then buried minutes later. The more I think about it, the more I appreciate what Churchill is doing here.
The problem is using this play as a graduation showcase. By the end of it, I feel like I only know a few of the 16 actors.
It is an incredibly difficult piece to pull off. The byte-sized scenes makes it difficult for an actor to orientate themselves in their role – they have to be ‘on’ instantly – and there is the potential to be left floundering. Not everyone finds distinct characters for every scene. Often the delivery of the last lines of the scene strikes a false note, especially when the actors have to rapidly escalate their emotions. Overall, however, these unique challenges are pulled off with skill and precision by the cast.
Transitions are another tricky rhythm to find. It’s great when we are scrolling from moment to moment, like when I click through my browsers tabs for new tweets, emails, notifications. Too often the effect is of being cut off during a video stream, pausing for the loading circle as the stage buffers. Perhaps it’s the music (led by Paul McLaney) that is partly at fault here, which, sounding rather like the generic synth keys on a keyboard, really begins to grate.
I become intrigued with the detailing of Rachael Walker’s set. She’s constructed a new false wall for The Basement, divided into paneling of different widths. There are five panels made up of thick strings running vertically. When an actor is framed in front of these it has a weird distorting effect, pixelating their edges. When an actor leans against the wall, these strings vibrate with life. It’s beautiful.
I’ve got to almost the end without mentioning any of the actors by name. So let’s talk about a few moments. These are the ones that have stuck with me overnight. You’ll probably have your own too, which is the great thing about this play.
What was I – oh yes. Brie Hill, Timmie Cameron and Evan Fenemor, attempting a memory exercise by trying to remember a list of objects by visualising them placing them in different parts of their house. It’s funny, but then Hill has a shift in mood, and really makes this moment count. Great acting.
Cally Castell and Paul Trimmer flirtily discuss animal tests. A film shoot – one of the longest scenes – where the cast go for full soapy British regional accents in a nod to the play’s origins. The moment I really hold the candle for is the music that is made between Ruby Lyon on vocals, Emily Campbell on violin, and Mel Odreda on (a mimed) piano. Odreda’s memory is gone; Campbell looks to him, the tears in her eyes saying more than Churchill’s dialogue ever could.
It’s utterly beautiful and moving and incredibly well played by all three. I could have stayed with it for much longer. But the play moves on.
Anyway, congratulations on making it to the end of this review. Now, don’t forget, if you’d like to see a fascinating Churchill experiment from some fine graduating actors, then make sure you book your —
Love and Information is presented by The Actors’ Program and Last Tapes Theatre Company and plays at The Basement until 21 November. Details see The Basement.