Science Fiction Theatre Festival
Pleasance Theatre, London. 27.05.19 - 01.06.19
A few years ago, science fiction theatre was not A Thing by any stretch of the imagination. Isolated plays that happened to co-exist in a Venn Diagram alongside SF ideas were pretty rare, or relatively unimpressive. Now, there's tons of plays which explore what it means to be alive today, by examining where we might be tomorrow. As science fiction becomes more popular across society through film, television, literature and gaming, theatre has begun to really find its feet in the field, with big producing houses such as the Royal Court and the Almeida staging excellent plays that have helped to establish the seriousness and significance of science fiction in contemporary theatre.
Encouragingly, this is not just a top-down theatrical revolution; science fiction is appearing across the performative landscape: along with the big guns of the country's top playwrights, theatre companies and emerging practitioners are also getting in on the act: from established, award-winning groups such as Superbolt, to new company Sleepless and their appearance at the New Diorama's highly respected and influential Incoming Festival, as well as numerous plays appearing at Fringe festivals up and down the country.
Which brings me to Horatio Productions, and their Science Fiction Theatre Festival. The company has quite an impressive resumé despite being only a handful of years old, having premiered works in London and Edinburgh. The Festival - in this, its second year - comprises of sixteen plays, made by some seventy artists, and aims to provide us with "mind-bending visions of our world that will provoke, inspire and, above all, entertain", as their website explains.
This isn't the first science fiction theatre festival of recent times - Cyborphic have produced a couple in London, and, further abroad, companies like Chicago's Otherworld have run a few, too. I've got my reservations about these festivals. For my money, I think science fiction plays should be viewed alongside any other play - separating them out and treating them as different encourages us to view science fiction as still a bit 'other', a bit too geeky in a world which has embraced pop-cultural geekdom across the board. On the other hand, festivals are an opportunity to put something on the map, and to celebrate what makes these plays unique.
Happily, the plays I saw on night #1 of the festival struck a great balance between being sufficiently nerdy to appeal to sci-fi aficionados, while also exploring interesting ideas in a way that felt theatrically engaging. The best of both worlds. The headline act is ReGen, written and directed respectively by Horatio co-founders Juan Echenique and Fumi Gomez. ReGen examines the ethical, cultural, and culinary (yes, culinary) implications of medical experimentation, healthcare privatisation, and the general mucking-about with our DNA. It's a play full of ideas, perhaps a shade too many for its run time: what starts off as an amusing business arrangement between a celebrity chef and a self-confessed terrible plastic surgeon soon morphs into an intense psychological and ideological conflict, making room along the way for scientific experiments, superhuman feats, a wedding, a courtroom drama, and a TED talk. So, plenty to chew over here - and to Echenique's credit, the concepts he's playing with are fascinating, even if we do swerve a bit suddenly between them. We glean all sorts of miserable nuggets about this future world - its politics, economics, grubbiness - and it's very easy to draw lines between our own state of existence and the play's examination of technology, money, and greed. Props, too, to Mia Foo, who gives an able and endearing performance as the scientist caught up in the mix.
ReGen plays every night of the Festival, and if this weren't enough SF for you, then each night also features several fifteen-minute plays. These are perhaps the real treat of the evening - a group of contained scenarios that offer short, sharp and brilliant interpretations of SF ideas. Gaël van den Bossche's User Conversion was a fantastic satire of social media and its central place in our lives, with a script that was quite daft and totally on the money. Reina Hardy's Julie Blinks was proper sci-fi, a clever and unique story perfectly explored, with well-drawn characters and strong emotional intent. Rounding out the night, Scotto Moore's Sending A Message was incredibly funny and playful; a real crowd-pleaser. If the quality of the rest of the week's shorter pieces match this first night, then Horatio have put together an excellent programme.
Props, then, to Echenique and Gomez for using their Festival to both share their own work, and promote that of others. With writers, actors and directors drawn from across the globe, there was a real feeling of hard work paying off. Best of luck to those artists still to share their work, and congratulations to everyone involved thus far.
I can't make the rest of the Festival - blame the PhD, it tells me when to sleep, when to get up - but you should check out the few days that remain. Programme details are here, and you can book tickets through the Pleasance site here.