252AM is a year. It’s 252 years since a virus in the ‘Y’ chromosome caused the death of male humans in 2015 – first the old, the sick, the very young, but finally, inevitably, every man on earth.
In Rebecca Pollock’s play, two women from NASA have been travelling in space since the male pattern terminus – in suspended animation, sleeping until their computer wakes them. And it does, finding a ship full of women who are orbiting a new Earth, replete with humans male and female, without a trace of the virus. But a quarter of a millennium of this female-only society has led to a total demonization of men, total submission to all authority, a near erasure of sexuality and sexual language, and a retconning of literature and history to suppress male stories.
Rebecca (Rebecca Pollock) and Polly (Polly Henson) are brought on board the plan to retrieve enough men from Earth Two to sustain new generations. What has been done over the last 252AM on this point isn’t clear – there is a elective and selective breeding programme, and mothers are the most treasured (but also, as Rebecca and Polly point out, segregated) members of the female-only society. Soon, however, Rebecca and Polly discover that the new colony have voted – all decisions are made by referenda – to keep men only for their genetic material. Female embryos will join the new society. Male embryos will not join them.
Rebecca is a well-written and able performed as a female leader who has – in the eyes of the future female society – adopted masculine traits to get ahead in a sexist world. She yells, she sneers, she is sarcastic and unwavering, she wears a leather jacket. The new colonists, socialized without testosterone-fuelled aggression for their entire lives, don’t respond to this. The play essentially stages an exaggerated conversation between a second-wave feminist and modern young fourth-wave feminists: one who has fought for a voice in a male-dominated society, and the others who are trying to reorder society in a drastically changing world.
It’s an interesting conversation and one it is key to have in our theatre, but I’m not convinced this is a fruitful way to get into it. The play has to jump through a lot of teeny tiny science fiction hoops to get to it in the first place: The astronauts have been kept asleep for years so that they can lead this mission? No, that can’t be right. So why are they put in charge of the operation? They’ve found an identical earth, with identical humans, except for the virus in the Y chromosome that killed all the men on Earth One? That’s comic-book multiverse unbelievable.
Along the way the text also makes a lot of odd and uncomfortable assumptions. The first is that women are essentially magic: without male influence, we are told, world peace is achieved in a few short years and maintained for centuries. The female society is a complete dystopia to the recently-awakened astronauts, but even as they try to defend men against the play’s straw feminist commune they fail to come up with any good reasons: “there were great men”, they insist. In addition, there are only the briefest gestures towards queer sexuality in Pollock’s vision of the future and no sense of gender fluidity. The only sexually or romantically attractive figures are the holographic memories of men that the NASA astronauts order up on the computer.
Beautifully lit by Rachel Nicholson, Jacob Shooter and Dean Bennetts with cold neon and with impressive live music composed by Magnus Kayser – both elements that were introduced dynamically in workshops at Rose Bruford in collaboration with the Creative Lighting Control Degree – the work is impressive in scope and technical ability, but the science fiction of 252AM needs more artful application to get to the pertinent metaphor at its centre.
252AM (After Man) was on at Vaults Festival 2016. Click here for more of their programme.