Nearly every other minute, I am scrolling through various news and social media apps, bombarded with a cacophony of headlines, photographs, and videos. This is the way most of us bear witness to our ever-changing world. Yet these chains of daily interactions with the media can simply leave us feeling numb, or else pointing the finger at intangible concepts and buzzwords like ‘the corporations’ or ‘the elite.’
News stories prove most memorable and provocative when individual human experiences, relationships, and emotions are brought to the fore. This explains why, historically, photography has been so successful at causing widespread outrage for particular issues – consider, for example, its importance in the development of the Vietnam War, and more recently in the ongoing refugee crisis.
Similarly, in Caryl Churchill’s 2006 play, Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?, the political becomes personal. The plot intimately traces the developing romantic relationship between two characters, Guy and Sam. But their explicitly political dialogue reveals that the pair exist as a metaphor for the special, if at times deeply toxic, relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
Originally written as a two-hander for a pair of male actors, Klaxon Productions have brought gender-blind casting to their production of Churchill’s text – Pelin Morgan and Charithra Chandran play Guy (UK) and Sam (US) respectively. Director John Livesey tells me he felt no need to restrict the gender of the characters, but the fact that it is a queer relationship seems to be an important aspect of Churchill’s intentions with the script. Livesey points out that so many queer relationships “happen behind closed doors” and it is this sense of intimacy or even claustrophobia that makes the piece so intense.
I am told that the set will be minimal, with one mattress on the floor to illustrate that we are in a bedroom. The intimacy of the bedroom will be intensified by the presence of a cameraman onstage, who will, I understand, record throughout the piece, with this footage projected onto the stage’s back wall. Conversely, these projections will also work to counteract the intimacy of the relationship, bringing into play the dichotomy of intimacy and distance that characterizes the way we interact with both politics and the media.
Livesey is taking advantage of a variety of media with his production – light, video, music – and as such he is seeking to create, in his own words, a full “aesthetic experience.” Livesey goes on to insist that this play is simply a portrait of a devastatingly toxic relationship, or “a tragedy without catharsis.” Here, he continues, referring to Shakespeare’s King Lear, we see “Lear in the storm… he’s mad and we don’t know how to respond.” Like Lear in the storm, Livesey argues, Churchill’s text allows us to “see America with no clothes on”.
In this preview, I watch a good thirty-minute chunk of the whole fifty-minute piece. The structure of the dialogue makes it initially difficult to decipher, with the two characters cutting the each other off nearly every line. Chandran tells me beforehand that the text, being without punctuation or stage directions, leaves immense space for interpretation. The experimental nature of the dialogue is obvious immediately, but as an audience member I certainly became used to the style as the scenes went on. In fact, it ultimately worked to make the piece more memorable.
Chandran and Morgan’s chemistry onstage is electric. Their portrait of this intense romantic relationship ranges from endearing and sexy, to aggressive and devastating. Sam (Chandran) embodies the United States, introducing the more naïve, or perhaps moralising, Guy (Morgan) to his political agenda. Across the scenes, they discuss in explicit terms political issues like war, space, colonialism and even torture. Chandran brings a gravitas to Sam that does justice to the US’s status as the world superpower. Throughout, she demands to be listened to. Morgan’s characterisation of Guy works to compliment Chandran’s Sam, bringing to the fore a sensitivity and hesitation that complicates Sam’s relentlessness.
Livesey explains that Guy does not only stand for the UK in this scenario, but for “anyone who falls in love with America.” Originally, Churchill named Guy’s character “Jack”, but changed it to “Guy” to illustrate that, as Livesey says, “Guy is all of us… (This is) our relationship with America.”
As the scenes go on, Guy reacts to Sam’s political decisions in multiple ways. At times, Sam’s promise of power utterly seduces Guy, but at others Guy cannot help but squirm at her partner’s cruelty. The most effective scene I saw which illustrates this dynamic was one in which the two characters examine dozens of papers on stage, reading statistics off them which signify war casualties, arms supplies and bomb use amongst other things. As Guy reads, she becomes increasingly aware of the devastating effects of this toxic relationship, and Sam reacts without mercy. She picks up the stack of papers from the middle of the stage, and proceeds to walk around the borders of the stage with Guy remaining crouched at the centre, dropping pieces of paper as she goes. As such, Sam creates a physical trail of her own destruction.
Chandran and Morgan’s presence on stage is most compelling in that it serves to remind the audience of what exists behind ‘high-scale’ political moves: the decisions of individual human-beings. As such, Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? forces us to look at politics in a unique way – we are made not only to attach responsibility to the people around us, but, crucially, to ourselves.
Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? by Caryl Churchill, is running at the Michael Pilch Studio from 31st October to 3rd November.