Beyond Belief - Tmesis Theatre
Updated: Apr 4, 2019
Sheffield University Drama Studio. 01.04.19
Well, this was excellent.
It's the near future. Revolutionary new technology allows us to record our digital souls, and download our consciousness into a new body when the old one kicks the bucket. Science, reason, and technology reign supreme. Immortality is here. For a modest fee, of course. Death is optional. Elvis is still alive. Welcome to Beyond Belief.
With the internet now integral to our security systems, communication tools, social interaction, and our lives in general, how does it affect us as a culture and as individuals? As technology makes our world more interconnected, our bodies more resistant, and our lives (presumably) easier, what do we become? Where do we stop? Can technology remedy all our problems? What if death - the last great mystery, the undiscovered country - can be solved, mapped, and overcome? This is the territory that Beyond Belief is determined to traverse. Essentially an extended exploration of the process of grief and how it can be mediated (or extended) by technological manipulation, the play follows Simon and his attempts to navigate the massive bureaucratic system of the Beyond Belief corporation, to which his late wife, Chloe, has bequeathed her digital self. At the same time, we follow Chloe on her journey beyond death, to a digital afterlife, and eventually back to physical existence with her memories stored in a new, synthetic body.
There is so much to unpack in this relatively brief show; it throws huge ideas into the mix, and it's a real treat. Getting its deserved kicking is the neoliberal, big-company ethos of our current global economy: in our corporate, data-driven, digital-streaming world, we own fewer and fewer products, instead seguing control to providers who may change the agreement or rescind our access as they see fit - who really reads the terms and conditions? Beyond Belief applies this logic to our consciousness - by controlling the tech that records our mind-state, the corporation at the centre of this digital salvation effectively owns our souls. This is the commodification of absolutely everything about our most intimate selves. It's entirely horrifying and totally plausible.
Similarly up for discussion is the role of religion in an increasingly technologically saturated, secular and self-obsessed society. What happens to faith when we can create a digital paradise, and defy death by living forever? Beyond Belief's answer is the elevation of science to the level of religion - in the play, the process by which deceased people are resurrected is treated with the ceremony and trappings of a liturgy: there are prayers to Babbage, Lovelace and Turing, tech-inspired catechisms, and cyber-symbolic gestures. There's a wonderful level of weirdness and interplay here - while technology "frees" us from the constrictions of human flesh, we become bound to it in worship, treating it as godlike, unknowable, awe-inspiring; in a world where our mortality is still in question, and our salvation is controlled by greater interests, are we really beyond belief?
Photos from the Tmesis Theatre website
Inevitably, there's some resemblance in all this to Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror - bloody hell, it seems like even the most vaguely futuristic/dystopian/tech-inspired science fiction play is comparable to Black Mirror. All this proves is that Beyond Belief is tapping into a cultural zeitgeist; our hopes and fears regarding the future are genuine concerns, explored across the pop culture spectrum. These issues have also been explored in theatre before - from the virtual reality world of Jennifer Haley's The Nether, to Rob Drummond's vote-based The Majority, theatre has begun to explore the implications of technology on our ethical, political, cultural and social systems. Yet while they might share thematic similarity with other works, what Tmesis brings to the discussion is a robust physicality that tells this well-trodden story in an exciting new way, and with a real theatricality at its soul and centre.
The lion's share of the play is told through movement. There's only a handful of scenes that are driven by dialogue, so much of the thematic work is expressed through physicality - entirely appropriate for a play which asks what it means to be human. Like RashDash and Unlimited's latest piece (with which this shares common ground), when words fail, we return again and again to the body. Beyond Belief is deliberately playful in dramatising its technological themes - its opening movements are purposefully robotic, before giving way to something more flowing and human. Yet those juddering, android-like gestures constantly interrupt the play, exposing and embodying our apparently inevitable transition from the corporeal to the digital. The show's cast - Nick Crosbie, Eleni Edipidi, Jennifer Essex, and Charles Sandford - are all fantastic; this is a real ensemble piece, each given a moment to shine, each contributing to a seamlessly performed whole. Stephanie O'Hara's design (with lighting from Sophie Bailey, videos by Jane Farley, and digital work by The Kazimier) is wonderfully sci-fi with its Matrix code projections, circuit board boxes and boiler suits. Music also plays a huge part - from some well-chosen Elvis songs and pre-show use of the Balanescu Quartet, to some brilliant dance sounds, the play's soundscape is a perfect fit. Everything is held together by Elinor Randle's direction, which lends the play real fluidity and clarity.
In my last blog post, I bewailed the fact that the National Theatre of Scotland's Interference was a rather uninspired, lazy approach to staging science fiction - despite being performed in an empty office block, the play was presented in demarcated places, the audience remained seated, the action was contained and constrained. Its science fiction was plodding, its theatricality unexciting - and in being so mediocre, it only encouraged me to remember better pieces in the same mould from both theatre and other media. Tmesis demonstrates perfectly how this sort of work can be done. If it reminds us of work from wider pop culture, none of it feels derivative - in fact, such similarity emphasises its own unique approach to this familiar landscape. Beyond Belief is a powerful and provocative piece, an eminently theatrical performance that is expressed and experienced through all the senses - from what we see and hear to what we feel, this is a play that is bursting with energy and ideas. I loved it.