“So it's like being unhappy but in your leg?” asks the young boy who can feel emotion but has no experience or conception of pain. This is not the only time that the thought-experiments of Wittgenstein spring to mind when watching Caryl Churchill's uneven but highly stimulating new revue of a play.
Perfectly illustrating the notion of a language-game, there's a sharp vignette on a plane where a women airily boasts that she “always knew” that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq “because of what America is like” and she flatly refuses to see that wanting something to be true is not the same as knowing it to be so, even if turns out to be right.
What is it to know something? Is it better know things or not to know things? What has our world of information-overload done to our capacity to feel and to remember and to our idea of privacy?
Churchill airs these questions in a swift-footed, witty, sometimes haunting, show that is itself a calculated and droll example of information-overload. Breathtakingly well-directed by James Macdonald, it unfolds in fifty-seven black-out sketches in which a superlatively versatile sixteen-strong cast play over a hundred non-recurring characters.
Performed on Miriam Buether's clinical white-cube set, each piece has a slightly hallucinatory distinctness. The text is bare of stage directions, so it is Macdonald who has imaginatively fleshed out the contexts (gym, cocktail bar, sauna, remote farm with no mobile signal etc) in which these encounters occur.
So, among many other things, a family sit watching an old wedding video and discover that they now can't remember anything about the day that is not in the recording. A man on an exercise bike is adamant that his virtual girlfriend can give him love. “She's just information” protests his interlocutor. “And what are you if you're not?” he rejoins, as though human beings were no more than sets of genetic instructions.
As always with Churchill, there is a brilliant instinct for the absurd. Having elicited from her prodigiously multilingual waiter a slew of foreign words for “table” – “trapezi stol mesa meza tarang tabulka”– an old lady cheerfully swats aside any suspicion of cultural relativity: “I can't help feeling that it is a table”.
“Knowledge comes but wisdom stays,” wrote Tennyson. Dramatising a world where we have faster and faster access to more and more data but can lose our grip on the human meaning, Churchill has spiritedly updated that maxim,
Till 13 Oct; 020 7565 5000