It is not the first time that I’ve been able to see productions of Caryl Churchill’s work back-to-back. In 2002 at the Royal Court Theatre I caught two of her early short plays, Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen and Identical Twins, at the same time as seeing the premiere of A Number. Identities in flux themed both Identical Twins, performed by brothers John and Martin Marquez, and A Number, in which three cloned sons played by one actor confront their father, while ‘…Oxygen’ reminded of Churchill’s longstanding political concern with environmental damage. My lasting impressions of these consecutive viewings were of a trenchant political theatre voice and identities twinned or cloned across performers.
Ten years later and the Royal Court has twinned Love and Information not with an earlier play by Churchill, but another new, short drama, Ding Dong the Wicked. With both plays staged in the Downstairs auditorium and with barely a break between the two, the backstage and front-of-house crews faced a formidable task in completing the set and audience changeovers. Playing to capacity in Love and Information and, thereafter to a full-ish house for Ding Dong the Wicked on the afternoon of Saturday 6th October,the Court’s corridors were fit to burst: so many people to accommodate in such a short time and uncannily evocative of the compressed but densely populated world of Love and Information.
Ding Dong the Wicked is neither written as a companion piece to Love and Information, unlike other Churchill doubles (Icecream and Hot Fudge; ‘Eight Rooms’ and ‘Two Nights’ (Hotel); ‘Heart’s Desire’ and ‘Blue Kettle’ (Blue Heart)), nor thematically paired, as was the case with Identical Twins and A Number. Rather, it sounds an altogether different, darker, explicitly political note in comparison to the more playful Love and Information. In just a little over twenty minutes, Ding Dong the Wicked sets and resets (echoes of ‘Heart’s Desire’), or clones a family scene played twice over in the same domestic, living room space. Except, however, the familial replay takes place in another country. The room remains but the furniture is rearranged; a national flag hung on one wall is moved to the opposite wall; the dialogue repeats, although not in the exact same order, nor assigned to the same characters. As the cast of six double the twelve roles, the overall effect is of a fairground hall of distorted mirrors.
The purpose of the scenic twists and distorted characters is political: each family connects and yet disconnects, existing either side of a hostile divide. As warring factions, each has a moment of fascistic, nationalist celebration: each choruses ‘zig zig zig, zag zag zag’ when an enemy is pronounced dead by the media (deduced by the characters’ reaction to on-screen news that they can see, but the audience can’t). It struck me as a dystopian ‘bookend’ to her earlier play Far Away in which characters engage in a seemingly hopeless struggle with how ‘to be on the side of what’s right’. In other words, what Churchill presents in this latest work is how dark and dangerous the world is when either side believes they are ‘on the side of what’s right’.
No stranger to the ‘us and them’ divides that characterize hostilities within and between nations, Churchill brings ‘home’ the idea of warring factions through her familial setting(s). As each family gathers for a hero’s send-off (one soldier boy ready to leave for war), the domestic space transforms into a ‘war zone’: a doorbell rings, a man gets up and shoots the unseen visitor; a girl is locked away in another part of the house; marriages are breaking up, and happiness equates with the desire to defend one’s country even if it means being killed, ending up like a ‘dead dog’ in ‘the road’ ‘getting squashy’ with ‘a lot of flies’.
Elliptical, surreal and full of menace (markedly so in the performance of the ‘un-twinned’ John Marquez), Ding Dong the Wicked emerges as a ‘grim’ tale of and for contemporary times. And if, finally, I think of Love and Information and this Churchill ‘short’ as two plays brought and seen together, I do find a disturbing connection: when emotion (love) ‘sticks’ to the nation as an object of patriotic affection, then gone is the ability to process feelings, thoughts and information – all casualties of a nationalistic, warmongering fervour that insists on the right to be absolutely right.