When I arrived to watch a rehearsal of Garden, most of the cast were wearing plant pots on their heads. This, it turned out, was not a daring fashion statement, but an image which captured the essence of Jack Bradfield’s witty, heartfelt new comedy. Garden follows Elizabeth, a phytologist (plant scientist), and a group of brilliant researchers at a top-secret laboratory, where they all have a single aim: to prove that the world is a virtual reality simulation, and that none of the other researchers exists. The play draws on the ideas of ‘simulation theory’, recently developed by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, who argues that there is a high probability we are indeed living in a virtual realm. Simulation theory is gaining ground, and Garden’s laboratory of scientists takes its inspiration from rumours that a Canadian multi-billionaire is currently funding researchers to find a way of breaking out of our simulated world.
The collaborative development of the play extended into rehearsals with his cast, and Bradfield described the final version as a ‘semi-devised’ piece, which the actors played an integral role in shaping.
This provides an intriguing basis for a play, and writer-director Bradfield handles the scientific and philosophical material deftly. In the scenes I watched, it never dominated the action, but provided a subtle backdrop for the very human stories unfolding onstage. Indeed, Bradfield described how Garden was originally inspired, not by simulation theory, but by the idea of failed communication, and the notion of people living in bubbles and refusing to listen to one another. The flowerpots on the actors’ heads, Bradfield explained, reflect this sense of being sealed off from others, while also evoking the utter immersion of a virtual reality headset. Watching the rehearsal, I couldn’t help thinking that the flowerpots also offered a place of retreat in the face of extreme social embarrassment. Garden presents a joyous celebration of the awkwardness of human interaction, a kind of comedy of inept manners, in which the characters’ clumsy, tentative attempts at connection provide much of the play’s humour and emotional impact.
The scenes that I saw were excellent. Rosa Garland presented a tight-lipped, determinedly controlled Elizabeth, whose eventual breakdown was characterised by an understated, introspective misery. However, the play was not afraid to break the pathos of such moments, and Elizabeth’s quiet existential despair was comically undercut by a quip about ‘veggie spiders’ and sausages. Later on, her request for suitably sensitive music was met by a loud burst of Queen’s ‘I want to break free’, accompanied by the energetic air-guitar motions of the janitor (Adam Goodbody) with his mop. The subsequent sight of the entire cast, drinks in hands, flowerpots on heads, bopping mechanically up and down to the music provided a wonderfully absurd reflection of the awkwardness of the scenario, and the characters’ anxieties about engaging with one another.
Alongside such failures to connect, the hesitantly blossoming romance between Jessica (Anushka Chakravarti) and Paul (Joe Peden) was particularly endearing. Chakravarti brought a light playfulness to her role, which contrasted effectively with moments of vulnerability elsewhere, while Peden’s performance, for all his comic one-liners, was engaging and sincere. Special mention should also go to Bea Udale-Smith as The System, an artificial intelligence that controls the laboratory, and the play itself, determining when the characters can speak by lifting and replacing their flowerpots, and changing the projected backdrop with a swipe of her iPad. Udale-Smith’s performance was compelling; she achieved a poised, subtly heightened physicality that was slightly uncanny, and observed the characters she controlled (or, at least, attempted to control) with a sense of politely detached attention. This effect was developed through hours of experimentation, with Bradfield, producer Charles Pidgeon, and many other members of the production team working together with Udale-Smith, an experienced practitioner of physical theatre.
This collaborative open-mindedness characterises Bradfield’s overall approach to his play. Garden was developed on the prestigious Royal Court young writers’ programme, and Bradfield explained to me that participating in the workshopping process gave him the confidence to explore a variety of new voices and characters in his work. The collaborative development of the play extended into rehearsals with his cast, and Bradfield described the final version as a ‘semi-devised’ piece, which the actors played an integral role in shaping. Their shared sense of investment in the script was clear in the rehearsal I attended, with the cast laughing appreciatively at each others’ comic lines, and remaining engaged in the action, even when offstage. In a play about virtual reality and the failure to connect, there was something reassuring about this imaginative, collective way of working. Bradfield and his cast have created a play that is quirky, funny, and above all, endearingly human.