In 1996, Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking was part of that great wave of plays that seemed suddenly to to place new playwriting at the centre of the theatre in the mid-1990s. I saw it when it opened and went in having seen a couple of reviews and hearing that it featured explicit sex and violence. Part of me thought it might end up being a rather meretricious piece of shockery. It wasn’t. It was a very complicated and contradictory vision of a world I recognised for the first time by watching the show.
It’s all about the title, and specifically it’s about the and. Shopping and Fucking. The play parses the connections between those two terms in dozens of different images: a man being rimmed while slot machines cha-ching, someone masturbating to a shop’s CCTV video, phone sex lines, rent boys, a blow job in a clothes shop changing room, a woman baring her breasts for a TV shopping channel, and more and more. As that description suggests, Shopping and Fucking is a very fragmented play; not radically in the way that the following year’s Attempts on Her Life would be, but it moves from moment to moment, each scene appearing almost without explanation, the gaps having to be inferred. The play is largely lacking in entrances and exits - like a lot of contemporary plays, and in that Shopping and Fucking has I think been very influential. Entrances and exits are dramaturgical threads that insist on the continuity of identity, that geography is stable and coherent, that the path through life is coherent and ordered and linear. Ravenhill strips all of that away. The lights go on and, for the most part, the characters are just there. The script and the staging force us to infer place and sometimes space was just blank; we assumed they were somewhere but they could be anywhere. Structurally and in narrative terms, the plays divided characters from each other, scenes from scenes, the present from the past (apart from Diana and Fergie’s night at Annabelle’s there are virtually no references to anything pre-1990). It’s a shower of fragments.
But and is a tricksy word. And is not is but and is also not but. (I love that sentence; I’m going to delete it and write it again. There, just as good second time. Now once more, more clearly:) ‘And’ is not ‘is’, but ‘and’ is also not ‘but’. ‘And’ brings two terms together without determining the nature of that encounter: ‘and’ identifies, conjoins, connects, compares, juxtaposes, contrasts and opposes. And the ‘and’ in Shopping and Fucking set up a continuous pattern of connections, however soulless and heartless those connections might be. Right across the fragments there was a repeated pattern pulsing out - through the multiple conjunctions of shopping and fucking, money and sex, desire and economics - that gave a broader vision of a society in which money replaces our most intimate feelings and relationships. And this itself is echoed and amplified by another series of echoes and patterns that ripple out across the play: fathers, CCTV, feeding, pain, seeing the whole world. It is a weirdly Marxist play about the way the social superstructure is formed by the economic base. It’s also an elegant, heartfelt - extremely heartfelt, I was surprised so many people missed this - and subtly crystalline play about the way a society structures everyday life. It’s full of affectionate hope, and sunk in despair. It’s much underrated.
Sixteen years later, another and. Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information makes good on the promise of its title with, I think, 58 scenes, each of which somehow combines information (knowledge, secrets, data, memories, facts, truths) with love (relationships, feelings, parents and children, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, friends, lovers, colleagues, enemies). The scenes are organised in seven sections; the text explains that the scenes in each section can be played in any order but the sections must proceed in the order stated. There are several one-line ‘depression’ scenes, where depressed people are addressed but do not respond. These are scattered through the play. There are some random scenes at the end that can be dropped in, like an ink blot, or a corrupt section of a data file, disrupting the scenes around them, undoing any orderly sense of argument or neat coherence. In the Royal Court production, directed by James Macdonald, they use none of these extra elements directly, though we do get birdsong, silence and a sneeze.
The scenes, such as they are, are given titles in the text, and on the page we’re probably looking at lines of dialogue not assigned to speakers. The sections are, loosely, themed; or, at least, I can see themes in some of them. 4 is definitely all about memory. 1 appears to be about getting information; 2’s scenes are mainly about information that people don’t want. 3 is about misinformation. 5‘s bits of information trouble people. In 6 we’re looking at how information makes us feel. In 7 there seems to be a curious disconnect between the information and what people are getting from it. In the final scene of the play, love and information are almost entirely separate; information reduced to trivia information and love simply expressed through the question ‘Do you love me?’ and the answer ‘I do yes I do’. The scenes are often very funny - certainly, they were in Macdonald’s production - and the laughs are sometimes at blackouts: the sudden announcement of an end, underlining the strangeness or the inconsequentiality of the scenes. The timing of the blackouts, I must say, is exquisite. The flow of the evening is largely from very funny scenes to rather more melancholy scenes: though the blankness of the writing means that one might well perform the play the other way round, starting in darkness and building to love.
The production at the Court uses 15 actors to portray the 100 or so characters. It is set in an open-fronted, but otherwise closed white cube, whose front is shuttered off between scenes; there is a playful magic in the way the shutter opens to reveal a new scene. It harks back to Ravenhill; no entrances, no exits. The company is diverse in age and ethnicity (recalling Crimp’s provocative demand in the text of Attempts on Her Life for “a company of actors whose composition should reflect the composition of the world beyond the theatre”). Between scenes, we hear samples from radio and television, birdsong, running footsteps, the iPhone’s marimba ringtone. Most of the sounds gesture vaguely to the scene about to start. The beginning of each section is indicated by a projected numeral. The opening to the white box is framed by a square rope of colour-changing lights (reminiscent of the similar square of bulbs that surrounded the action in Macdonald’s Court production of Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?)
It’s again, all about the and. Like Shopping and Fucking, this is a play of fragments. But the fragments are more fragmentary. Each scene, no matter how small, is exquisitely observed. Churchill’s language is very distinctive here: strange and perfectly observed, in detail and attitude. It never sinks into satire; we are just invited to share the author’s steely gaze as the way we speak and behave with each other. But, despite my attempt to discern patterns in the seven sections, the play does not have the same ripples of analysis that run across Shopping and Fucking. At least not of the same kind. Here the fragments are pushed to breaking point. This is sometimes emotional: in one of the ‘depression’ scenes, a woman is lying in bed. Her lover (I think) suggests they go for a walk, but she doesn’t respond. He waits then slams his newspaper to the floor in frustration. I guess many of us have been there, on either side of the anger. But the scene lasts maybe 25 seconds, then the shutter comes down. We get a glimpse of two lives, a relationship in crisis, the heart reaches out and then we lose them for ever. There isn’t - as there is in a different kind of fragmentary play like Wastwater or Under the Blue Sky - a pattern that suggests these characters inhabit the same world or social circles, that each passes through the background of the others.
Instead, the show is offering us a different kind of vision of the world through information overload and emotional underload. That is, the barrage of scenes and characters is like a social media flow, a cascade of tweets and status updates and emails and TV channels; but at the same time, the scenes are so short, we are deprived of our ‘usual’ theatrical rhythm of emotional engagement, getting to know characters, seeing them in different places, relationships, building up a three-dimensional picture of their personality. We just see people in one context. It would be easy for a production of this play to turn into a series of sketches, a kind of Fast Show for the stage (if there wasn’t already a Fast Show for the stage). But this is where the show reveals its complexity and asks tough questions about the world around us, because Churchill’s writing is so smart and clever and exquisitely observed, I found myself, time and again, thrust straight into a situation, recognising its truthfulness, caring about the characters, even though I knew almost nothing about them, that I’d experienced them through a moment, an accidental imprint on time. It seemed to me that the show and the writing was pushing at the limits of our ability to engage with other people. It’s mimicking the technosocial flows of society and the ways that can lead us to disengage for others as people (the famous rudeness of comment-box people writing on the bottom half of the internet), the twitter abuse the gets flung around. The multiplicity of stories, the shop-window/computer screen presentational stage, the brevity of the scenes; the brutality of the guillotine blackouts, that seemed to say, don’t bother, don’t connect, there’s someone else along in a minute, just eat up what you want, consume, form shallow associations, don’t be guilty, surf this show.
And yet the show didn’t do that. It didn’t end there. I’m trying to wean myself off the habit of seeing the sublime everywhere but I can’t help myself. What can you do? The mathematical sublime, as Kant defines it in ‘The Analytic of the Sublime’ (Critique of the Power of Judgment, §§ 23-29), is the crisis caused when glimpsing sights of extraordinarily scale - a vast ocean, a sheer chasm, a craggy high mountain. What Kant says is that the faculty of the imagination so fails to calculate how great the object is that we experience it as infinite, which outrages the imagination. We can see it but we cannot present it to the imagination, we can apprehend it but not comprehend it. This is the cause of the anxiety present as part of the sublime: a failure of cognition to present the object of apprehension for comprehension.
But the sublime is also pleasurable. We seek these experiences out and we get not just a shiver of distress but a shiver of pleasure too. For Kant this is because, faced with the crisis between the apprehension and comprehension, the mind can resolve or overcome the disjunction by the reason which insists on the finitude of all objects and insists that we can therefore represent the unrepresentable through a priori cognition. Basically, the mind boggles, but reason calms us down.
Here I experienced a kind of socialist sublime. The play pushes atomism at us, it revels in its fragmentation, it offers little to link the scenes, except for some broad thematic movements, which the text invites the production to disrupt and corrupt. It is a play that tries as hard as it can to offer no sense of generality and to place obstacles against us engaging with the particulars. Certainly quite a few people seem to have struggled to think ‘what it all amounted to’ Yet, for me, the precision and clarity and humanity of the writing (and, certainly, of the performers) meant that time and again I found I was touched by the glimpse of a life, immediately engaged with a debate, fondly amused by an encounter or episode. As such, the whole play, swam into focus. The general movement of the play is through the sublime, from atomistic fragmentation that exceeds and overloads the whole through some anxiety in response to that (what will it all mean), to a kind of pleasure at seeing how it can, nonetheless, despite everything, engage with these people. The effect is, of course, heightened by the vast array of characters passing across far fewer bodies, the doubling creating ghosted images of one another. We’re shown the threat to sociability and the persistence of sociability. There’s no such thing as society trumped by communitas.
It’s a very remarkable play, I think.