Lives are placed in your hands. A decision must be made. Do you act to save a single life or a half-dozen strangers instead? This is the crux of the famous trolley dilemma, but if actually placed in a comparable situation, where would most of us even begin in attempting to blunder our way through such a decision. We haven’t been trained to make decisions like this. Most people aren’t taught ethics at school. Decisions of such magnitude, in any case, can feel utterly removed from the experiences and choices we must make in our everyday lives. And yet we do make ethical decisions, even those with global repercussions, every day: whether to eat meat, whether to fly or drive or take public transport, occasionally even whether to privilege the suffering of one over the agony of the many.
Action at a Distance, a new play by recent University of East Anglia graduate Rory Horne, is underpinned by a kind of trolley dilemma. But instead of following a single figure as they choose harm for one or many, his two protagonists – Chris (Rosa Caines), an out-of-work plumber, and Josh (Dom Luck), an activist charity worker – play out the ethical conundrum of choosing between various configurations of suffering for one or suffering for many.
Chris has no money and an ailing mother to save. Josh needs more money to prop up his charity, Conflict Clarity, which analyses and releases data of U.S. drone strikes in Syria and Iraq. To obtain money for their respective needs, they both engage in the same unethical behaviour, behaviour which profits from the suffering of others even while it does not actively participate in it.
If Action at a Distance fronts a critique of personal profiteering on the back of global suffering, Horne’s play never attempts to answer the question of whether the motives of Chris or Josh, who initially meet through an online dating messenger service, are more or less defensible. Instead, the implication is that, in our ignorance or unwillingness to engage directly with these thorny ethical dilemmas in the face of our own personal problems, we are all somehow culpable – a position clearly expressed by Chris’s ailing mother, who finds it impossible to sympathise with the plight of war-torn Syrians in the face of her own illness. I bet at least they have free health care, she fumes.
If Horne’s dialogue has a certain competent naturalness, I wished for a little more pizazz, a little more sparkle. When Josh explains the nature of his charity’s work, Chris says that, although she never gave it much serious thought, she nevertheless assumed that there would be ‘collateral damage’ to civilians in times of war. ‘We call that murder,’ Josh baldly states in one of the play’s snappier exchanges. Nevertheless, Action at a Distance is a provocative piece of theatre from a promising young company which probes hugely complex moral dilemmas without ever falling prey to the trap of moralising.
Action at a Distance is on at Zoo until 22nd August. Click here for more details.