Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Light, which debuted in 2014, is a visual feast that most viewers ought to thoroughly enjoy. But, curiously for a dystopian sci-fi story set in the late 21st century, it’s already showing its age.
Writer and director George Mann’s 80-minute production weaves together a mime performance on a near-dark stage, rapidly switching spotlights and torches, and a rich, varied score featuring live vocals performed by Mann himself. These three elements combine to create the impression of the spaces in which the action takes place; the movement of hands alongside a shwerping, blerping noise becomes an electronic door being opened.
The story is mostly communicated through LED surtitles, which give us snippets of the dialogue being mimed onstage. It follows Alex Dearden, an agent at Peace of Mind, a corporation that manages implants in the brains of the population that allow their thoughts to be monitored. As the story progresses, Alex comes to realise his employer isn’t as benevolent as he was led to believe (… duh?), and begins to uncover secrets from his own past.
The narrative, sketched out in a style reminiscent of comic book panels, gives us only the basic points – an approach that allows the show the level of plotting this genre needs to thrill, while letting audience members allocate most of their brain power to following what the performers are physically doing. This can be a little exhausting at times; the ambition of the mime, while impressive, sometimes means scenes require a major effort of concentration to make sense of. It’s worth it, though: Mann’s staging is very evocative, especially when it enters a character’s “mindspace”, a subconscious zone represented as a terrifying, cavernous place that brings home the cosmic horror of existence.
When a work of art, in any form, speculates on our future, it demands an assessment of its own plausibility. It’s impossible to know whether we’ll ever develop the technology to access another person’s thoughts via brain implant, though given some of the crazy advances of recent years, it would be bold to bet against it happening. Wouldn’t human reluctance stall the implementation of such a system, though? Not necessarily: the adoption pattern of any number of emergent technologies or cultural practices shows us that what is anathema for one generation can become indispensable for the next.
But there’s another way in which I don’t think Light resonates as convincingly as it might have done in 2014. At that time, Edward Snowden’s revelations – an inspiration for the story – were still fresh, and concerns about government overreach into our privacy were, quite reasonably, high on the agenda. Those concerns haven’t gone away. With the passage last year of the Investigatory Powers Act (the so-called Snoopers’ Charter), things are worse than ever.
As with so many other things, though, the salience of Mann’s story has been ruined by President Donald Trump – or rather, the political and media context of his rise to power. The proliferation of fake news, alternative facts and the post-truth environment in the last two years have changed the span of our possible futures. The worst case scenario is now not one in which our primary concern is an overpowering of authority, but a total lack of it, both factual and moral.
While Light is clearly influenced by 1984, recent events have shown us that our society’s nightmare destination is closer to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than to Orwell’s Oceania. Amusing Ourselves to Death, a 1985 book by Neil Postman, spells out the difference in the two authors’ visions:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”
Light’s dystopia is not far from Orwell’s. It’s a frightening picture, but not one it feels we’re on the verge of entering. Which is why, while a serious accomplishment and a very enjoyable watch, it doesn’t entirely hit home.
Light is at Battersea Arts Centre until June 17th. For more details, click here.