When Cora Bissett approached three very different writers with the idea of taking a look at how technology might affect day to day lives, as with the best near-future yarns, she couldn’t have predicted the outcome. As it is, the trilogy of brave new works gathered together under the umbrella heading of Interference, and performed in Bissett’s National Theatre of Scotland production in a once futuristic-looking Glasgow office block, have plugged into worlds which might not be that far away from reality.
Where Hannah Khalil’s play, Metaverse, finds a woman waiting to do homework with her daughter by way of virtual reality, Darklands, by Morna Pearson, focuses on a young couple attempting to have a child in a world divided by an un-named catastrophe. Finally, Vlad Butucea’s play, Glowstick, is set in a care home overseen by androids. Despite their futuristic trappings, all three plays in Interference come from places close to home.
“Technology can be great,” says Khalil, whose experience of flu gave part of the impetus for her play. “My husband quarantined me, and for a while my daughter wasn’t allowed to come near me, and that left me with a very visceral feeling. In that sense, I wasn’t too interested in the technology, but in the human story that enables.”
This was the case too for Pearson and Butucea. Pearson’s previous work, in particular, has focused on characters occupying an off-kilter world rather than being concept-led.
“At first I had too many ideas about things,” she says of her thinking behind Darklands, “but then these two or three characters appeared in my mind, and it became about the future of human connection, and asking at what point do we stop being human. By forcing the characters into a situation they can’t control, that’s when you can really examine how human nature deals with that. I think Cora was maybe hoping we’d do something that wasn’t cynical or dark, but I tend to write dark stuff anyway, so I hope the humour of the play comes through beyond that.”
Butucea’s play is similarly rooted in real life.
“I just kept reading these articles about robots being used in care homes around the world,” he says. “That is especially the case in places like Japan, where they have an ageing population, and not enough people to look after that. But it becomes more interesting in the context of the UK, especially with Brexit, and the huge impact on the NHS, which doesn’t have enough resources to care for people in the long term. The bottom line is that a robot is cheaper than a human carer, and that raises big questions about how we evaluate something as personal as care.”
There has been a noticeable visibility of science-fiction drama over the last few years. On television in particular, a seeming rediscovery of the genre speaks volumes about where we are now. This is the case even as, somewhat ironically, programmes take some of their moves from dystopian fiction of old by way of a more cynically strung-out view from the 1960s, when sci-fi was as much a part of the counter-culture as a copy of Oz magazine or IT.
Where all this began is anybody’s guess, but E.M. Forster’s story, The Machine Stops, first published in 1909, through to Isaac Asimov’s collection of short fiction published in 1950 as I, Robot, and its follow-up, The Rest of the Robots, point the way. Some of Asimov’s work looked to Forster’s story, while both future Star Wars director George Lucas’s 1971 debut feature film, THX 1138 and the original novel that inspired the film, Logan’s Run, also drew inspiration from The Machine Stops. In film too there was the ecologically inclined Silent Running, inner-city overcrowding in Soylent Green and the hippies in space of John Carpenter’s debut feature, Dark Star.
Similar ideas have been brought bang up to date with Charlie Brooker’s series of stand-alone techno-fears in Black Mirror, as well as the suitably ice-cool look at robots coming of age and possibly to their senses in Humans. What influence any of this has had on Interference remains to be seen, though all three writers appear to have deliberately kept their distance.
“As soon as I started on this project I stopped watching Black Mirror,” says Khalil, whose own work has been seen on TV as well as writing for the likes of the Arcola Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company. “Black Mirror is brilliant, but it can also be upsetting, because we’re in a dark place politically, and dystopian futures are good backgrounds to play these things out. With Interference, Cora encouraged us to look at the positives, and so some of the things that have come out of the plays has been quite beautiful, and they have a lot more hope.”
Conversely to what is happening on television, and sci-fi geeks will no doubt be able to contradict this with a galaxy’s worth of examples, but putting sci-fi onstage has never been easy. Again, ironically, this has arguably had something to do with theatre dealing with the flesh and blood variables of having actual people up there doing stuff than being able to rely on sometimes unreliable special effects.
This didn’t stop Ken Campbell producing his nine-hour staging of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s tripped-out sci-fi conspiracy epic, Illuminatus!, in a Liverpool arts lab back in 1977. Nor did it prevent the late Tom McGrath writing his own take on robots at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 1978 with his Asimov inspired play, The Android Circuit. More recently, Stef Smith’s play, Girl in the Machine, also at the Traverse, proved again that it is not a special effects budget that counts, but the people.
“On TV, the future is often quite shiny and sleek,” Khalil says. “Where is science-fiction allowed to be messy on TV? Only on Red Dwarf does it come close to that. I think we’ve managed to honour it as a genre, so it will be glossy in bits, but the plays aren’t that hi-techy. The thing I love about the plays being done together is that tonally they really feel like they’re from the same universe, and it’s the human stuff that counts.”
As Pearson points out, “I suppose it’s just about shared experience. I think a lot of people are fearful of the future, and I suppose doing the three plays in Interference is partly about getting together and sharing those fears, but also trying to alleviate them as well.”
Butucea sums it up best.
“I think all of us are really exploring one large question, he says, “which is how technology changes things for us as people. Technology is very much what we make of it, and it is humans who use it for good or bad. In that respect, Interference isn’t so much a reflection of technology. It’s more a reflection of humanity.”
Interference, City Park, Alexandra Parade, Glasgow, March 16-30.
The Herald, March 7th 2019