18 October 2018
In an age of selfies, what does it mean to be a self? Can we even imagine being ourself separate from our body? Advances in medicine, biotechnology and AI mean we can extend beyond the limits of our fragile and fallible bodies, but what do we leave behind when we ‘correct’ or even abandon our physical bodies? How do we even think about these questions?
Unlimited Theatre in collaboration with RashDash smash together spoken word, music, movement and physical theatre in an astonishing show that provokes you to ‘think outside the box’ – the box of physical limitation, mortality and human/machine interface.
The initial impression is jarring, often discordant: bright lights, loud electronic music (played by blue-skinned and pregnant Becky Wilkie; quick-change scenes, minimal but striking stage set. Questions are signalled but not really explored in little, fast-paced vignettes. The whole is (deliberately) alienating. What kind of world is this? What’s this all about? It’s sort of familiar, but not quite right. Why am I feeling this? The staging embodies that sense of disorientation when faced with cutting-edge technology.
Then it starts to settle into longer, more philosophical, yet dramatic scenes, where an aspect of the theme of ‘future bodies’ is explored lyrically, passionately, with feeling depth.
The scenes that stayed with me:
Alison Halstead’s monologue as a bereaved partner contemplating an implant to ease the pain of heartbreak. A piece of brilliant writing an acting, it explores the visceral ambiguity of grief: we want ease, we want relief from pain, but we don’t want to forget, or be as if we had never loved the one we’ve lost. Technology may make the question a practical one, but the issue itself is as old as love and death.
Similarly, Deshaye Gayle’s murderer, choosing execution over a ‘treatment’ which he feels would make him less of his unique psychopathic self. Technology may allow us to ask the question but the underlying issue: is my badness as much a part of me as my goodness? That’s been around for way longer.
Yusra Warsama, as a terminally ill person offered the option of uploading herself onto another, unbodied, platform, to evade death, speaks a heart-breaking hymn to physicality, the irreplaceable joys of the feeling body. Words can not capture the speaking gesture of a hand touching a cheek in reassurance. Ironically, since the piece is about the limitation of words and bare thoughts, as against embodied experience, it is the passionately articulated words that carry the argument.
And this is one issue I would raise about the production. The writing is brilliant, and its brilliance, paradoxically undermines its thesis. Philosophically, this is a much older argument than new technology would suggest. Maybe I am biased, as a writer, but we’ve always had ‘hardware’ platforms to preserve our thoughts and feeling, our selves beyond death. Words, literature, drama, art – these survive us. Platforms, media, technology may change, but ever since we stopped grunting and stood up as humans, we’ve stepped away from the present moment in-the-body experience. We’ve become reflective and abstract, even while reflecting on the possibility of separating from the physical body.
Finally, and again this may be my word-based prejudice, the last section didn’t work for me. The freeform movement-/ dance-based ending seemed unconnected with what went before. It neither resolved the issues raised (probably an impossible ask) nor sharpened and gave them clarity. It was nice to watch but ultimately its meaning was opaque. I would have liked to see a stand-off between Alison Halstead’s CEO, selling the corporate benefits of Unlimited Enhancement, and some of the more body-biased characters. Instead it seemed, an albeit visually striking, mess.
Don’t let that put you off. Big questions are raised. I went home with my head buzzing. And it is a visual feast from a beautifully diverse, athletic and energetic cast (two heavily pregnant women, one black one blue, and the extraordinary physical contrast of short powerful Alison Halstead and the tall willowy pregnant grace of Yusra Warsama). I don’t usually comment on the physical shape of actors, but this was an integral part of the picture. We humans come in all sorts of shapes and abilities. Maybe we will add to that in new ways. If we want.
Last chance to see is tonight 18th Oct at 19.45.