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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Royal Court


  John Heffernan and Amanda Drew/ Ph: Stephen Cummiskey

This is synapse-tingling theatre – a virtuoso whirl through what it means to be human in the Information age. It scales mountainous issues, but deals with them more quickly than you can say, "I think therefore I am."  (Or these days is it "I Google, therefore I am?") Caryl Churchill’s new play tackles, in no particular order, memory, mortality, genetics, neurology, sex, love and how to combine infidelity with ballroom dancing. If that makes it sound slightly bonkers, sometimes it is, but it also shows a writer at the height of her powers, giving a master-class in taut, elliptical, outrageously witty dialogue that probes the fiendish puzzle of modern consciousness.
Logistically it looks like the kind of proposition that should make a director exit stage left with a gun. Never one to shun formal experimentation, Churchill combines 100 characters in almost 60 scenes, but provides no storyline. Instead the scenes are presented as snapshots lasting anything from one to three minutes, with black screens zipping across the stage at the end of each one like the shutters of a camera. There’s a level at which it’s a parody of today’s dilemma of information overload. the effect is a bit like watching a Robert Altman movie on speed.
At one point we’re laughing as Laura Elphinstone’s spiky waif tells Josh Williams’ TV-obsessed boy she’s his mother, not his sister. Then the mood sobers as Amanda Drew’s movingly restrained young woman is told by a doctor that she probably has less than three years to live. In a later juxtaposition of scenes (which technically could be played in any order) Nikki Amuka-Bird is comically no-nonsense as her character tells her somewhat disconcerted lover about sex being "information from two sets of genes." Then suddenly we’re watching Susan Engel’s happy eccentric warbling amusingly about, "Does God have a higher god to give his existence meaning? … I’m surprised he’s not depressed."
As the different scenarios bounce off your brain like the coloured dots of an Impressionist painting, you start to see different strands of enquiry forming. What’s most dangerous: too much information or the lack of it? How does a cerebral fact impact on physical reality? What’s most important to our sense of who we are: our DNA, what we know or the way we love? Is love itself extricable from the information we have about someone? Is everything information?
James Macdonald’s immaculate production consistently demonstrates that brevity can be the soul not just of wit, but of profundity. Miriam Buether’s set makes each scene take place inside a cube of graph paper – so it’s as if the characters come together to form different equations on the theme of the human condition. The performances are consistently excellent; though you only see the characters for a couple of minutes, the actors inhabit them so fully you feel you’ve known them for hours. Sometimes the impact leaves you reeling. A particularly potent moment is when Rhashan Stone’s pianist starts playing a song, summoning a passionate performance from Nikki Amuka-Bird’s singer, who he’s never met before.

The key to Churchill’s multi-faceted work lies in the repetition of scenes dealing with depression. Characteristically they are mostly funny. In one, a man slumps forlornly over a cat basket at the vet’s while the woman with him tries to kick-start an abortive conversation on the Middle East. In this context, you realize that a defining aspect of depression is the inability to care about information any more. The bombarded brain turns into a vortex in which facts are meaningless. "Only connect," wrote EM Forster, but without that desire for information, there is no connection to others. Its overload is our curse, but though we abuse it, misuse it and confuse it, information – we infer – is also the life spring of the human condition. 


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