Staged in an eerie office block just outside of Glasgow, National Theatre of Scotland’s tech-horror trilogy Interference is a slick, atmospheric evening. But in the end, like last year’s iPhone, it’s just a bit outdated, the tales at its centre lacking the revolutionary bite needed to shake its tech-savvy, dystopia-weary audience.
Our opening soiree into technological despair is Morna Pearson’s chilling character piece, Darklands, which explores the sticky ethical gymnastics needed for young couple Brie and Logan (the engaging and energetic Shyvonne Ahmmad and Nicholas Ralph) to accept a lab-grown baby into their lives, despite having – for hazy reasons – already given every other aspect of their existence over to the governance of ‘The Company’. Disassociation is the name of the game and it’s explicit in Jen McGinley’s glossy design, with the two actors almost never together onstage. Instead, they occupy separate transparent cubicles, and we hear their stories through their communications with the disembodied ‘Moira’. However, the gut-punch of Pearson’s story isn’t the familiar, unappetising Orwellian conformity. It comes via her light-touch storytelling, and the creeping idea that growing our own progeny in a Matrix-esque greenhouse isn’t haunting simply because of some outdated concession to the supremacy of Mother Nature; but because of the suggestion that with these confined, directed lives, ‘The Company’ may have orchestrated Brie and Logan’s activities, emotions, fertility even, to condition them to take part in this latest ‘experiment’. An unsettling echo of the sleepwalking dependence many feel Silicon Valley tech conglomerates are leading us into.
Next up is Hannah Khalil’s Metaverse, which tries to explore the dissonance between physical contact and digitally-mediated communication via the relationship between a woman (Maureen Beattie) and her daughter (Ahmmad), who meet as often as they can in a digitised ‘metaverse’ to do homework together, before the mother has to get back to her shady, silent lab work. The least successful of the three plays, Metaverse suffers from trying to cram too many ideas into its 45-minute run-time, leaving important concepts and players unhelpfully vague. In the end, the final betrayal of the characters lacks the expected emotional resonance. Despite this, the play’s central concept is one of Interference’s most interesting: at what stage is connection real or artificial? Does it matter if an avatar truly represents your daughter, if she’s real in your mind’s eye? Enticing and thought-provoking, it’s an extreme evolution of the current social media self vs. real self discussion.
Vlad Butucea’s Glowstick, the final part of the trilogy, is probably the most traditional drama of the three: a powerful two-hander that forgoes overly complicated future possibilities to play with the old question of human vs machine, via the tentative relationship between the dying River (Beattie) and her android carer IDA (Moyo AkandÃ©). Initially, the android element of this play seems superfluous– but slowly, we see that this is the point: IDA is programmed by humans, and questions of morality, friendship and doing the ‘right’ thing as a carer are as difficult for her to parse through her rule-book as it is for any conventional ‘human’. Of the three plays, Glowstick is the bravest in questioning the technology=bad trope. With a delicate, devastating final third, Butucea offers a powerful conclusion to the trilogy; a ringing reminder that in the end death is a thing none of us can properly understand – even machines – and when we face it, we are, ultimately, alone.
Staged in a sanitised, eerie office block, the presentation of Interference is part of the show. The audience are hustled and directed and coddled in the same way as the characters, and we’re invited to draw parallels with how our lives are controlled by the Nameless Faceless– Google Maps, newsfeed algorithms, Fitbits– just like the characters in front of us. It works in an atmospheric kind of way, but more could have been done. Only in Glowstick, when IDA races rings around the seated audience with wheelchair-bound River whooping and cheering, do we get a taste of how the space could have been more imaginatively used to make the ideas of freedom and enclosure really hit home.
In fact, this slight holding-back is endemic of the production as a whole. Frankly, Charlie Brooker’s been making Black Mirror for eight years now. For the audience, tales of intrusive tech, our data being used against us, the virtual enslavement of our identities to social media giants… it’s not edgy drama. It’s just news.
What Interference only touches upon, to its detriment, is how we can be better. How we can take technology and make it work with and for us. As Director Cora Bisset notes in the show programme, the tech is benign; it’s the people behind it that are the problem; the old human frailties of greed and power and maliciousness. But we already know that. Flashback to last year’s Facebook backlash or the furore over Youtube’s morality; a million GDPR tick-boxes and the resurrection of the Nokia 3310 and Polaroid cameras. The problem with Interference is that its future is too near; so near it’s almost now; so near that we’re all already suckered with a horrible sense of dread whenever we accept another screed of Terms & Conditions we haven’t actually read yet. What the plays in Interference really needed, to shake their dystopia-weary audience, was to show the human faces; expose that greed and inhumanity and suggest how we can combat them. It needed to try and show us a way out. Or it needed to show us hope. Where are the technological Utopias? Where are the seeds of optimism, like on Channel 4’s Home this week, when refugee Sami used VR goggles to visit his son in far-away Germany, to hold him – at least as much as he could? People working together to use technology in a positive way, to do what it was originally designed for – communication and ideas. That’s a bigger ask of a playwright in 2019: show us hope. Push our imaginations. Hold us responsible. We’re past the age of the faceless ‘Company’. We need encouragement to take responsibility and make technology work for and with us, and reject it when it doesn’t.
Interference runs at City Park, Glasgow, until 30 March. More info here.