Image description: A poster for the play, reading “this is going to feel a bit strange”
With no choice but to spend far too much time staring at screens this year, when I first read about Simulacrum, I was decidedly unenthused at the prospect of spending yet another hour and a half of my life in front of the all too familiar Zoom display: life boxed in, the dreaded lagging and freezing of stilted images and voices, all ultimately amounting to a depressingly disconnected version of reality.
And yet, amid all the challenges and setbacks with which the coronavirus pandemic has halted the world of theatre this year, Riana Modi and Helena Aeberli have taken this in their stride to produce a play which lends itself perfectly to a ‘webcam-style’ production. Centred on an inaugural trial to upload human consciousness to the internet, the result is a deeply engaging piece of theatre which tackles themes of love, loss, and the dangers of endless technological possibilities in a not-so-distant future.
Centred on an inaugural trial to upload human consciousness to the internet, the result is a deeply engaging piece of theatre
Cosima Aslangul’s performance as the trial’s first participant, the “dead-not-yet-dead” Julia Ashby, is moving, harrowing, and, quite frankly, nothing short of astounding. The protagonist, a 35-year-old academic and activist who was suffering from advanced stage terminal breast cancer before deciding to hand over her consciousness to the AI firm VirTech after she dies, is awarded a striking profundity by Aslangul who, seen on-screen for almost the entire 101 minutes, does not so much as even slip out of character at any moment, leaving us un-averted witnesses to the dramatic collapse of a marriage, straining of a friendship, and a painfully consuming descent into madness.
Matthew, Julia’s loving husband, is played with emotional depth and vulnerability by Gregor Roach. Though Roach seemed to at times hold back somewhat in his expression of emotion during the play’s first half, it was clear that he truly came into his own later on, and perhaps the initial conservation was important in order to create the steady subsiding into anger and breakdown that we see emerge in the play’s final scenes. Over the course of the production, the couple’s chemistry and tension in equal measure successfully call into question what it means to be human and the limits of unconditional love, as Gregor witnesses his wife degrade into an increasingly distant ‘ghost in the machine’.
Over the course of the production, the couple’s chemistry and tension in equal measure successfully call into question what it means to be human and the limits of unconditional love
Elise Bussett gives a natural and heart-wrenching performance as Julia’s best friend Claire, who remains loyal and desperate until the bitter end. Bussett’s final scene is particularly memorable and will certainly stay with viewers for a long time to come.
Doctor Greenways, who checks in on Julia throughout the Simulacrum trial, is made genuine and convincing by Georgina Dettmer, while the contrarily sadistic Doctor Duarte is brought to life by Henry Calcutt, exposing the clandestine and malicious agenda behind the VirTech firm.
Bussett’s final scene is particularly memorable and will certainly stay with viewers for a long time to come
The music for Simulacrum, composed by Leo Kitay, is effectively anticipatory and futuristic. Though it sadly loses the impact it so strongly holds as an incidental piece, becoming a little repetitive in its continual use in the latter halves of subsequent scenes, it is nonetheless successful in enhancing the eerie quality of the dialogue.
By the same token, the blur dissolve effect used to transition between scenes also grows a little tired, and I couldn’t help but feel that the play would have benefitted far more from a simple fade in these instances.
In short, Modi and Aeberli’s writing skilfully combines the poetic and the jarringly disjointed to create a picture of an advanced and yet troubled and uncertain world which, coupled with some truly stand-out performances from their cast, amounts to a unique and simply unforgettable production.
Modi and Aeberli’s writing skilfully combines the poetic and the jarringly disjointed
“This is all going to feel a bit strange,” the play opens, and this is not wrong. But if Simulacrum is even a semblance of ‘the new normal’ we can expect to see in the coming months as theatre evolves and adapts around the pandemic, it poses something very exciting indeed.
Image credit: Daisy Leeson