Interference - National Theatre of Scotland
City Park, Glasgow. 16.03.19 - 30.03.19
Interference is a trilogy of plays: Morna Pearson's Darklands follows a couple's attempts to have a baby, with gradually more insidious interventions from the giant corporate entity in which they live and work; Hannah Khalil's Metaverse follows a woman working on the new frontier of virtual reality, with gradually more insidious interventions from the giant corporate entity in which she lives and works (which may or may not be the same one from Pearson's play - hard to tell); finally, Vlad Butucea's Glowstick is the outlier, looking at the role of technology in care homes. In each piece, human interaction is stripped to the bare minimum - characters instead exist in techno-bubbles, communicating only with robots, recordings, screens and cameras. Individual thoughts and desires are subordinated in favour of corporate interests, which interferes as it sees fit.
This is all well-trodden territory: corporations bad, technology potentially dangerous; people usually idiots. We don't need science fiction to tell us this - this is a fact of life today. Plus, where science fiction has explored these ideas, it's done so with more originality than is shown here: there's Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror, and Alex Garland's Ex Machina, to name just two of the most recent examples. And it's not just wider science fiction that's explored these concepts - the theatre's already in on it, too, and Interference doesn't illuminate anything that's not been touched on elsewhere. Pearson's Darklands plays with the same ideas of genetic manipulation, designer babies and generally bad parenting that Caryl Churchill was dissecting in A Number, the better part of twenty years ago; Khalil's exploration of virtual reality exists entirely in the shadow of Jennifer Haley's brilliant The Nether; Butucea's Glowstick has less fun with its robot character than Thomas Eccleshare's recent Instructions for Correct Assembly or even some of Ayckbourn's sci-fi plays; it also treads on the same territory as Tamsin Ogleby's Really Old, Like 45. Plus, while I can't criticise people for not writing as well as Caryl Churchill, there were some real clangers here - so many moments that rang false.
I maintain that good science fiction plays put the theatricality first and the science fiction second - get the characters right, get us caring for them and believing in them, and we'll buy into their world. The three plays that make up Interference work too hard at creating a specific, detailed future world, with neither the time to do it nor the characters to successfully embody and navigate us through it - each play has much talk of uninhabitable zones, mysterious departments, ominous technological implications, maddeningly abstract bureaucratic processes...but little in the way of interesting people populating these future worlds. The characters we meet are two-dimensional - a workaholic woman, a lazy man, a Not At All Evil Corporate Representative. Plus, the plays seem to have been written entirely in isolation from one another, and the lack of communication between them means they offer diminishing returns on similar issues. More frustratingly, despite being unconnected vignettes, there's a tonal flatness to the play as a whole.
Photos by Eoin Carey
So does the National Theatre of Scotland's "theatre without walls" approach add much to the proceedings? Sadly not. Interference is performed in an empty office block, but the plays themselves take place in two specifically demarcated areas - we're taken there, we sit down, the performances happen as if we're in any conventional theatre in the world. The space's potential - its dark corridors, its windowless and claustrophobic atmosphere - is never tied to the thematic concerns of the plays.
We're also guided around this space by a disembodied AI voice which explains that we're all day-pass visitors to this giant corporate hive, and what we're seeing are examples of the lives we would lead if we were recruited. This throws up all sorts of questions - why would the company shows us lives that are clearly made worse by the company's machinations? Why, in one play, are we told that people can't enter or exit the corporate premises, yet in another someone is applying for a visa? How did we, the audience, get here? That lack of connective tissue between the three separately crafted pieces leads to a dissonant audience experience - when it suits, we are told we're in the world of the play, as visitors; next minute, we're in the interval, being offered drinks and merchandise. This was gimmicky tourist attraction as theatre; a slow ghost ride through an unconvincing landscape. Much as I love the National's decentralised, unfixed approach to play-making, nothing in this production justified its location; we could have watched this in the Lyceum and been all the same for it.
I feel that by pulling at this tenuous overarching narrative, I'm raising some very nerdy, very Comic Book Guy questions, and I hate to get bogged down in them. But the production totally did not distract from them - it amplified them. The show was really keen to show just how sci-fi it was - all the doors went beep and swoosh, there were generic techno-infused soundscapes complete with Ominous Lighting Changes, there were complicated graphs projected onto walls, and people did that strange, one-note "I Am Playing A Robot Now" voice. These are really generic features; I feel like a braver directorial approach could have embraced the space a bit more, found and celebrated the differences in each piece, and tried more unique ways to stage them - not reverted to rather lazy genre imagery.
Still, when I saw it, most of the audience seemed to be enjoying it. Plus, it's had a slew of good reviews. I suspect I've got my PhD hat on, and my reasons for seeing this are different to everyone else. But in two and a half hours, Interference offered very little that we've not seen elsewhere or couldn't work out for myself, and it told it in the most mundane, uninspired science fiction way possible. Ho hum.