Thursday, August 13, 2015

Love and Information


Sydney Theatre Company presents A Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre production, LOVE AND INFORMATION, by Caryl Churchill, in the Wharf 1 Theatre, Pier 4, Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay, 9 July - 15 August.

LOVE AND INFORMATION is a 2012 play by Caryl Churchill. Caryl Churchill is one of the most interesting contemporary playwrights and has always been a leader in investigating literary playwriting 'form' and unafraid to examine the social/political context of the world she lives in and writes for. Her provocative gaze came to blazing focus as far back as 1976 with her LIGHT SHINING IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE (revived, in 2015, at the National Theatre, in London), and includes famous plays such as: CLOUD NINE (1979), TOP GIRLS (1982) SERIOUS MONEY (1987), FAR AWAY (2000) and A NUMBER (2002).

From the program notes by Director, Kip Williams:
The play is written in seven sections, each containing seven scenes, save for the final section, which has an eighth scene that Churchill titles 'Final Scene'. Churchill stipulates that each of the seven sections must be played in order, but that the seven scenes within each section can be played in any sequence. Further to this, she offers ten scenes at the end of the script titled 'Depression', of which any number can be inserted into the play at any point. 
The rule here is that the production must use at least one 'Depression' scene. In addition she provides sixteen scenes titled 'Random', of which any can occur at any point in the production, but none of which is compulsory. Thus any given production of LOVE AND INFORMATION will contain somewhere between 51-76 scenes. At the time of writing, our production has used 70 of them. 
To offer the theatre maker even more freedom, Churchill stipulates neither specific context nor character for her scenes. Each scene of the play is given a title followed by dialogue that is entirely unallocated to any character. Who is speaking this dialogue, how many people are speaking the dialogue, and where this conversation is taking place is entirely up to the theatre makers. The scope of the potential is liberating in its endlessness.
It is an opportunity that Mr Williams, with Designer, David Fleischer, seize with relish. On a gloss white box set with several entrance ways, a collection of rectangular boxes, similarly gloss white, are jostled around the play space, in each of the (many) scenes to jig-saw out arrangements for the actors to create environments and 'play' in. The Lighting from Paul Jackson creates the temperatures of the scene contexts with a dramatic use of, mostly, stark primary colours, easily laid on the glowing white foundation of the design base look. The company of actors have divided the dialogue amongst themselves with the Director, and thus have created, for this production, the unique necessities of the famous Stanislavskian demands of the 'Given Circumstances' of Who they are, Where they are and When it is happening (literally and emotionally). This is then assisted by costume changes (many) and a selection of properties (many) to help the audience visualise the theatrical offers given by these actors, into an understandable context, to help to 'read' the chosen theatrical clues, from the company of artists to make sense of the action and intentions of Ms Churchill, which are further underlined by the 'staked' wants/needs of the characters in the textual scenarios.

What you can gather from the above is that this production, any production, of Ms Churchill's play, LOVE AND INFORMATION, will be unique. No production of the play will ever be the same. Scenarios arrived at in this production for the unallocated dialogues will not be seen in any other production of the play. (By the way, this is not a unique offer from a playwright, we have seen it, for instance, in variations, in productions of Martin Crimp's ATTEMPTS ON HER LIFE (1997), and Mark Ravenhill's POOL (NO WATER) (2006).

To further the possibilities of the play, any number of actors can be employed for the work. In the original production for the Royal Court Theatre some 16 actors were harnessed for the division of the text and possibilities of characters, to deliver Ms Churchill's love and information. In Sydney, The Sydney Theatre Company (STC) and the Malthouse Theatre, from Melbourne - it is a joint production - can only supply 8 actors in total: Marco Chiappi, Harry Greenwood, Glenn Hazeldine, Anita Hegh, Zahra Newman, Anthony Taufa, Alison Whyte and Ursula Yovitch.

Pause.

Why is this so? Is it that each of these companies can only find the resources for 4 actors each to deliver this work? It seems to be perfectly odd to me, especially considering that in the past three months since the middle of May, only 15 actors have appeared on the STC stages. Firstly, 7 actors in BATTLE OF WATERLOO in early June, after a two week gap of any production at all (Writer's Festival, occupying all our stages?), and now LOVE AND INFORMATION - 4 actors on the STC stage from Sydney, and 4 supported by Malthouse, I presume. In total, the Sydney Theatre Company have employed 11 actors on stage over a near three month period. Is that right? I merely ask for information, with respectful love. It becomes particularly galling whilst working with actors on an almost daily basis, in a class situation, to see how few actors get to appear on the STC stages, and then to count the number of staff - administrative and otherwise - who are credited in the back of the STC program (cost $10.00), and presumably are either full or part-time staff = 134, without counting the Education Artists and the Casual and Seasonal Staff, that are listed!! Weird, don't you think? That so few actors get to do plays on the principal stages, and, yet, there is so large a behind-the-stage staff.

To contrast, it is always startling (causing much inner grief, too) to see at the conclusion of the NATIONAL THEATRE BROADCASTS, at my local cinema, the number of actors who take a curtain call, compared to the paltry line-ups at the STC - one of our biggest Producer's of the Performing Arts in Australia. It must limit the choice of play we get to see at the STC to small cast plays, or heavily edited classics, and this in the touted 'Arts Precinct' of Sydney, eh?. What is it that the British Companies do to be able to manage the large number of actors they employ? Or, How do they do it at all, considering their Governments' diminishing support for the Performing Arts up-front? I ask, what does a country like Germany do, to have such a thriving culture. What does, Berlin, for instance, do, to manage its Art Precincts at such a high, in the sense of standard, and dense, in the sense of repertoire and number of artists employed (listen to, or read the recent Joanna Murray-Smith talk on Radio National podcast from the recent Playwrighting Conference in Adelaide).

P.S. Maybe Jonathan Church can let us in to the British secrets for our actor-starved productions at the STC, particularly, now that he is the NEW BOSS. ??? ??? We can only live in hope.

Anyway, back to the production at STC:

This co-production of LOVE AND INFORMATION, then, with only 8 actors (who are undoubtedly gifted), for the 70 scenes and 100 characters, have I reckon, an insurmountable problem of creativity, the problem of sustaining interest in the work for an audience, by having to provide a vast versatile variety of characters. The 8 actors, here, given the task of having to create approximately, 12-13 different life-forces each, some within a 30 second time frame, and to 'gallop' off into the wings of the stage, (to a throbbing , whisking, urging 'pop' Sound Composition by The Sweats) to don another convincing persona, take on, with a kind of artistic bravery, an undoubted phenomenal ask from Director, Mr Williams, and his Designer, Mr Fleischer (and the STC and Malthouse). It appeared, by what transpired, to be a very difficult thing to do, and both actor and audience were gradually sapped of the energy of collusion needed to keep the work suspended in real interest, throughout the whole of the work/play.

I had read the play and was extremely looking forward to the production. The sense of our overloaded world of information and the speed at which our daily interactions are, generally, made, and Ms Churchill's incisive, witty, political astuteness as to the dangers to our capacities as human beings to sustain love, to even, ignite love, in our frenzied media-driven world, was a theme of overwhelming and urgent relevancy, for me - Ms Churchill with her astringent, usual creative finger on the pulse of our contemporary dilemmas and courage in 'pushing' theatrical formulas.

However, my experience of the production, was to be enraptured for the first 30 minutes or so, to be gradually subsumed into an aching tedium with a loss of a caring focus for the valiant work of this small team of actors, as they changed costume and carried different props, and, perforce, began to repeat their imaginative and inventive resources to try to realise their many responsibilities. The means that they could conjure, became very 'limited' in their repetition, by the excessive demands being made on so few. There is a limit even to these actors resources to convince me and maintain my interest over some 100 characters in total. By the end of the production I was more attentive to the box arrangements of the Design, by the actors  - much time in rehearsal must have been spent in planning the 'ballet' of the box choreography (no stage management in view to do the job, just the actors?!), and marvelled, objectively, at the costume and prop changes and the speed that that required - I was in a kind of wonder at the actors' athletic ability and that they still had the focus to practice their gift, the reason they were employed, I presume: that is, to act. It was, all, then, unfortunately, at the expense of Ms Churchill's dramaturgical meaning and construction. I did not lose myself in the offers of Mr Williams' production - always the ultimate bench mark for me. 16 actors would have been better? 12 may be sufficient? 8? Definitely, not - it's stretching the possibility of success too far, for my hard earned money.

Some fine work by the actors but hardly consistent in quality of offer. Was it fatigue, seemingly, shifting their disciplines into sloppiness? Mr Williams has a penchant for imagery - an installation-artist's inclination, no matter the drama of the text - and some coup-de-theatre were made, some attempted, most recalling the work of other imagists such as Robert Wilson (EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH), or Robert Lepage (LYPSYNCH), (e.g. the graveyard with the falling snow, umbrellas and roses - recalling, for me, the fourth act of OUR TOWN or Tarantino's KILL BILL), that had captured the essence of remembered images, but had not honed the required discipline from his artists to indelibly deliver them, at least on the afternoon I saw the work. The actors not able to maintain the precision of movement to sustain those visions, beyond the trigged recall to another creator's work.

In summary: LOVE AND INFORMATION in Wharf 1 at the STC: visually sumptuous production values, with too few actors to gain a consistent quality of sharp edge to reveal Ms Churchill's terrific play.

But then, even the original production at the Royal Court, had its critics, wearying with the number of scenes, and contesting that some of it worked and had an impact, and some of it didn't. I found the first thirty minutes arresting, and then drifted in and out with my concentration, longing, ultimately, for it to end. It was only a running time of 90 odd minutes. Odd?

N.B the photograph accompanying this Diary entry. 7 actors out of 8 moving the Design Settings. 1 actor actually acting - 1 out of 8. STC has no stage-crew, either? At least none in view. Interesting, eh? Hmmmm.

1 comment:

Ted said...

I was lucky enough to see the revival of Light shining in Buckinghamshire at the NT in London earlier this year - that production had a cast of eighteen (with some doubling)!
My first thought on seeing that production was how rare such big casts are in Australia. To top that- we then saw the excellent production of The Beaux Strategem (also at the National Theatre), and it has a cast of twenty-one!