I am MEMEsharer4983. Aided and abetted by a cast of criminal characters, I have successfully tracked down and eliminated the threat of a data-grabbing doppelganger on the streets of the West End, secured my online personal information for my own use, and handed over my identity to MEME – a new corporation that promises to build a profile that manages your life for you, based on preferences derived from your previous browsing, buying and social media history. But would I have done so if I hadn’t been “playing along”?
One by One is one of the most unique and exciting theatre experiences I’ve had, and yet, for all its raising of topical issues, I couldn’t help feeling that the piece relied on the novelty of its narrative medium at the expense of developing its very relevant subject matter.
The play works on the premise that, since much of our personal information is already owned by third parties in the online marketplace, it is conceivable that a company might one day arise that offers us the means of buying this information back. In the world of One by One, MEME promises to do just that: to buy back your data in order to ensure the safety of your online identities not only against the threat of hackers and scammers but also against companies currently holding this information who are liable to sell on these data for a profit to potentially unscrupulous third parties. The piece’s masterstroke though, is to suggest that such centralisation of information may in fact be just another form of control by a company seeking to monopolise the market in online data.
Or at least it would be, if the play’s premise were not submerged in the mass of murky information that begins to bombard the audience once they have left the MEME mainframe at the Tristan Bates Theatre and are sent out in search of a mysterious doppelganger to reclaim their personal data. Rather frustratingly, the object of finding this doppelganger is soon lost as we are plunged into a series of one-on-one encounters with characters who at first seem to offer an alternative to MEME (in return for selling bits of your personal information on the black market – public school education, who needs it?), but who, it gradually becomes apparent, are just more pawns in a game set up by MEME to test each individual’s suitability for the programme. After the initial excitement of the secret meetings on street corners, the coded handshakes, the ticking clock, the tones of whispered urgency from the actors, I’ll admit the realisation that I too was just a pawn in a clever drama game did take the edge off my excitement.
Make no mistake though, this is about as immersive as a night at the theatre can get: charting dystopian territory similar to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, the play takes the sort of audience participation seen in James Graham’s Privacy at the Donmar last year to the next level, catapulting an audience of one through a series of intense scenarios with a host of characters ranging from the eerily clinical to the downright shady. But, since the piece admits only one audience member every 10 minutes, its audience is invited to believe that these are events over which they, as participants in the action, have some control, when in fact they have no agency and no real room for interaction – every decision has been carefully devised beforehand.
The irony is that, if this constraint on the action were deliberate, it would reinforce the play’s argument that we aren’t in control of our own data. The problem is, I’m not sure that it is, and the uncertain nature of performing this kind of theatre in such a public space and on such a strict time limit, makes it look as though One by One is designed in this way merely in order to ensure that each step of the tour goes according to plan.