Future Bodies - RashDash and Unlimited Theatre
Updated: Feb 24, 2020
Home Theatre, Manchester. 28.09.18 - 15.10.18
The future, we are told, is coming. Technology is rendering the dreams of yesterday into the commodities of today - and it isn't finished yet. We already have pacemakers, smart phones, biomechanical limbs, VR goggles...what comes next? Future Bodies, a joint production between theatre companies RashDash and Unlimited, grapples with who we are and what we will become as technology continues to transform what it means to be human.
The play moves along a spectrum of evolving tech, starting at the recognisably human with a few extras (hearing devices, stem cell enhancement, really empathetic sex dolls) and moving to the human-plus, with a menagerie of biotech gadgets such as neural interfaces, internal health screenings, perfected hearing devices and cognitive upgrades. At the far end of the spectrum, we end up in the more remarkably sci-fi realm of digital existence: minds stored on substrates and data streams, life lived in a virtual world where the physical body is seen as quaint, even faintly ludicrous.
We travel along this spectrum with a variety of characters and scenarios, each showing how technology impacts our actions, bodies and lives. In one scene, a woman receives a health ping alerting her to cancer - she's entirely unconcerned, as if it were a headache. Elsewhere, a woman with hearing impairments defends her right to not fix this through tech, as it is an intrinsic part of her sense of self. In an even starker scene, a serial murderer refuses to undergo neural treatment to reduce anger levels, considering it effectively identity castration. We have scenes in which characters fear invasive technology, only to be told that it's here already - in our phones, our online interactions, our purchasing and browsing history. We have questions of finance, of market forces, of whether technology empowers or enslaves us; whether it connects or isolates us. What does tech free us from - and what does it make us?
So, we have recognisably scientific images of enhancement-oriented tech mixing with the more speculative and incredible sci-fi imagery. The line between these states seems pretty permeable - which is exactly the point the show is making, and precisely how these sort of incredible developments are made. Science and science fiction are in constant conversation with one another - they speculate, imagine, interrogate, each offering a unique testing ground for new ways of living and being. Today, technology allows us to explore ideas which even a few years ago seemed out of reach. Elon Musk (when he isn't doing something more patently bonkers or offensive) is working on a neural network that allows users to interact with computers and machines just by thinking - an idea he's based on the work of his favourite SF writer, Iain M Banks*. Then there's entire industries devoted to spurious, quasi-scientific fields like nanotechnology - millions pumped into research and design to make tiny, programmable robots, all despite the fact that the idea remains pure science fiction, nowhere near being achieved. Science is more and more often becoming super-future-oriented, and Future Bodies puts this on stage, loudly and brilliantly.
(Photos by Jonathan Keenan)
Everything theatrical is at work here - like our bodies, the stage is in a state of constant movement, constant change. The actors scale the set, dance, sing and bring the play's ideas to life. Dialogue is projected onto screens - an excellent gesture of inclusivity which also brings us back to the ubiquitous presence of technology. Scenes are given projected titles such as YOUR BRAIN IS A COMPUTER and YOUR PHONE KNOWS YOUR BODY BETTER THAN YOU, and the action is capped by songs performed by RashDash's Becky Wilkie - loud, exciting, and full of little gems like "You have chips to make you smart, I spend my time making art" and "my upgrades bring all the boys to the yard" (best line in the show, that). Wilkie is also dressed in campy alien bodygear and is painted blue from head to toe, like a member of the Blue Man Group in a Flash Gordon remake - and why the hell not.
Form and content mix brilliantly throughout - the show never lets us forget that, despite technology driving us beyond our basic selves, we are humanly frail, physically alive. The play's fluidity and its emotional heart are emblematic of RashDash's approach (of whom Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen take directing duties), with the intellectual heft coming from Unlimited, who've spent years at the intersection between theatre and science. It's a great combination of company styles. The cast are excellent, particularly Deshaye Gayle (who has form with this kind of play, having appeared in Nessah Muthey's Sex With Robots and Other Devices earlier this year), and Alison Halstead, whose monologue on death and grief was a sight to see.
Of course, just as the play tells us of the body, nothing is perfect. Several scenes explore similar technological territory, with diminishing returns. And while some characters are compelling and distinctive, others are so lightly sketched as to be forgettable, or to be confused with other, peripheral figures. It's a pity also that the dance section is just that - a long chunk at the end of the play, as opposed to woven amongst and throughout, as RashDash plays normally treat movement.
You could lose fifteen minutes off the whole show, and it'd be a blinder - as it is, it's a bloody good if slightly overlong piece. It goes to town on its ideas, finding the best theatrical way to explore heavy, occasionally terrifying concepts of enchancement, posthumanism, and cultural evolution. There should be more plays like this - accessible, energetic, asking big questions with song and heart and grit.
* There's an entire essay to be written on whether Elon Musk (egomaniacal capitalist billionaire claiming to act for the betterment of humankind) has fundamentally misunderstood Banks' utopian future society run by ridiculously powerful machines that promote a subtle mix of hedonistic individuality and totalitarian conformity...but this not the place for such a debate, SADLY. Still, Musk named two of his drone platforms after Banks' wonderfully daft-named spaceships (Just Read the Instructions and Of Course I Still Love You), so he gets a tick for that, at least.