It starts like this: Terry is sitting in his go-to cafe, drinking his regular peppermint tea and water. Then out of the blue, condolence messages start pouring into his inbox. Luka, his ex-boyfriend, has died. Soon after, Terry receives an email telling him Luka has made him the executor of his online presence. Now the decision of what to do with the digital shadow Luka has left behind lies with Terry.
Written by Chris Goode, Dante or Die’s play-turned-video-podcast experience User Not Found explores a situation that is very much a 21st century invention. It reminded me of the fact that one day the dead will outnumber the living on Facebook. And though that’s estimated not to happen until the 2060, the dilemma of what to do with the growing number of ‘ghost’ accounts is with us now. In a compact running time of 50 minutes, Goode explores the impact of being surrounded by a recently dearly departed’s online presence. One that will never update, and yet still be open for everyone to tag and comment on.
Dante or Die’s co-artistic director Terry O’Donovan performs the lead role in this solo piece. While the nature of this online version means we don’t see O’Donovan, you feel secure in his narration and where he leads you emotionally. Listening to someone talk for 50 minutes straight can be difficult, but I felt engaged throughout.
It’s interesting to see what form artists choose to share their work in, now that the majority of audience experience happens online. Dante or Die is a site-specific theatre company, and so they’ve made our phones their new playground. Watching User Not Found on full screen on a mobile, Terry’s phone screen mirrors ours. His notifications pop up on our screen as if it was his friends messaging us. When he stalks through social media apps, we see him do it and hover over photos with him. I thought this was a stroke of genius simplicity.
I highly recommend putting all your own notifications on silent while experiencing this piece. Yes, because it deserves your full attention. But also because I didn’t at first, and got annoyed when my own buzzes were overlapping with Terry’s notifications. So trust me – Twitter can wait.
User Not Found first premiered in 2018 as part of the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh Fringe programme, before going on to tour the UK, USA and Israel in a mixture of cafes and theatre spaces. I wish I’d seen it live, but not because I think it would necessarily be better. It’s just that I think sitting in an actual cafe and experiencing it with other people would make you connect with it in a different way. But then again, there was something quite serene about the end of the work, something that comes from listening by yourself, privately, that you may be hard pressed to experience elsewhere.