How do we talk about apocalypse? Robert Reid considers two recent shows that grapple with the end of the world: RUR_2020 and Oil Babies
Grant Morrison wrote recently that “the days of apocalyptic, nihilistic epics are done. We survived the end times. We no longer have the luxury of Armageddon to occupy our time with its flamboyant demands”. Lately I’ve been feeling a similar apocalypse exhaustion. Not that we shouldn’t be talking about the impending end of the world, because Morrison is wrong: Armageddon is still to come.
The angst we’re feeling post-2016 is the pre-realisation of our species’ imminent mortality. Of course the world is always ending, but for the moment it’s also fashionable. Old certainties are being challenged, old assumptions called out. Old worlds are passing.
In a lot of ways, Armageddon looks old, white and male: self-centred, slow moving and convinced of its own authority. Dinosaur commentators thrash at each other over dinosaur media; a Final Solution is seriously called for in the Australian Parliament; resource anxiety and system stress grow and spread, driving social tension that manifests as extreme xenophobia; there are bushfires in Sydney in the middle of winter. And Trump. TRUMP! But don’t worry, Australian theatre has noticed and is on the case.
I’ve liked end-of-the-world stories since I was little. There’s a simple dramatic structure to the apocalypse: boiling dark clouds, thunder and lighting, long shadows, ominous stillness. There’s the vicarious catharsis of seeing the accomplishments of humanity, the seemingly permanent monuments to our hubris, casually destroyed by nature. Towers and cities and global networks, that are in reality far more fragile than spiderwebs, dashed by the real deal.
These aesthetic experiences are hermetically sealed. Like the nightmare visions Goya painted on his walls when he went mad, what function do they serve other than to satisfy an urge to see the complex simplified by destruction? Is the new modern condition the choice between simplicity and complexity? Are our only choices a retreat into a binary philosophy reductio ad absurdum or a loss of self in the face of infinite complexity.? The stalking gods of Lovecraft haunt the extra-dimensional spaces around this very human anxiety, not to mention his systemic racism and sexism. But that was a different time…
Melbourne independent companies Play Reactive and LabKelpie are the latest to bring their apocalypses to the Melbourne stage with, respectively, RUR_2020 and Oil Babies.
I went to Play Reactive’s production expecting something interactive: Georgia Symons and Shang Lun Lee have both long been working in playful and immersive performance and tand so I assumed that, as audience members, we would be somehow involved. We weren’t though, not even a little; we were an audience in the dark looking at actors doing the actor thing. Which is fine, so far as it goes, but the expectation did colour my experience. I should also say that this work was presented as part of National Science Week and so its focus may logically have been more the staging of information in context.
‘I approach RUR 2020 with my senses attuned to my environment, with a personal moral position prepared for what the issues and problems we might confront together. I’m ready to say that it’s on humanity: we’re the ones who built the robots, we’re the ones who bullied them in labs in the name of science and then put films up on YouTube in the name of good, clean, robot-hassling fun… I say we deserve whatever we get.
RUR 2020 is a very loose adaption by Rohan Byrne of Karol Čapek’s 1921 play R.U.R. The initials stand for Rossum’s Universal Robots, the name of the fictional factory at the centre of the original, which is also the origin of the word “robot”. It’s suggested that Čapek coined the word to sound like the Czech robota, which translates to slave. In Capek’s play, science and industry have advanced to the point where mechanical automata are advanced enough to serve as indentured, unpaid labour.
Čapek’s play is a classic use of genre to critique contemporary politics, specifically the exploitative relationship between capital and labour and the eventual revolt of labour against capital. Byrne’s adaptation takes the structure of the original, beginning with a celebration of humanity’s cleverness that slowly descends into chaos and uprising as the monsters we create turn on us in revenge for our cruelty.
In Byrne’s updated text, the monster is biological: technology has moved on from cogs, gears and wires to genetic programming, nanotechnology and neural networks. But the anxieties remain the same: the ethical and moral questions around the uses of the technology of life. Who are we to play gods?
I begin my journey into this world on the street outside the St Vincent’s hospital café. The performance is in situ at the BioFab3D Lab at the hospital. I haven’t eaten so I grab something sad and damp from one of the cafés on site. These spaces are built for waiting and anxiety: the walls practically bow outward with the pressure from worried loved ones. Hollow, sleep-deprived eyes watch me as I go by. Real dramas surround us, real tragedy and pain. Anything fictional, anything metaphorical, is dwarfed by the sorrow, fear and loss that hangs in the air.
There is a strange, scuttling and urgent kind of life to the hospital grounds at night. Orderlies, nursing and surgical staff hurry between buildings or huddle over illicit cigarettes in the dark shadows of doorways and alleys. What does it say that health professionals, those who are in the position to know best in all the world, still need to lean on nicotine to shoulder the weight of their terrible responsibilities and workloads? There is comfort in self-destruction. The self-hugging, rocking back and forth, peeling-at-scabs and hiding-your-medication kind of comfort. Smiling into the winds of oblivion. The romance of apocalypse.
It takes me a while to find the building. It’s an office and lab, not usually open to the public and so neither lit nor sign posted. I wait in the corridor with the other audience members and we go up together in the elevator to what might be the foyer of any small office. Ugly carpet, ugly lighting fixtures, ugly furniture. There are a few banks of seats arranged like an auditorium. Oh, it’s gonna be a regular show. Sitting and watching. Okay.
The characters in the play are engineers and administrators working in spaces that they might actually inhabit in the future real world, anaesthetic laboratories and personality-less office spaces that are airlocked behind glass walls, not for reasons of dramaturgical distancing but for biological quarantine. There are moments of suspense in these spaces as the characters stalk each other through the labs, but curiously the space resists drama. It’s as if the carpets and glass walls are designed to absorb anxiety. The walls completely swallow the noise from inside (necessitating the use of head mics to hear the actors when they’re in there) and damp down the sound when they argue in front of us in the break-out room.
An introductory video promotes the vision and success of the fictional company and their takeover by a larger company (eventually to become Rossum’s). This video flares to life throughout the show, breaking the scenes into something like acts. The scenes are divided by data and exposition that fills out the world of the problem, though not the world of the characters. There are moments of drama – clashes between colleagues, betrayals of ideals and even a failed office romance – but these are scattered lightly between longish debates about the technology and the ethics of its use. While these are fascinating and urgent debates, they lack the dramaturgical structure to sustain the narrative. I don’t much care about the characters or their struggles as they try to save and inadvertently destroy their world.
Oil Babies, written and directed by Petra Kalive at the Northcote Town Hall, is on the other hand a more traditional theatre experience that stages the anxieties of middle-class families in the face of certain doom and asks, in a roundabout way, if it’s okay to bring new children into this world.
Oil Babies and RUR_2020 both suffer from their desire to inform their audiences. A recent criticism of Christopher Bryant’s Sneakyville was that it suffered from “info-dumping”, as unlovely a phrase as I’ve ever encountered. Certainly, in that work a great deal of information was presented in a torrent towards the end of the first act. This didn’t bother me, because it didn’t mindlessly repeat facts and figures: Sneakyville recognised the apparently egregious sin of introducing data into a theatrical performance and played with it. It was self-aware.
I’m not convinced the same can be said for either RUR-2020 or Oil Babies. Both contain strong performers who give their all to the text and the moment, but in both cases they are let down by texts that recite, rather than speak or sing. Both texts struggle to connect their constituent pieces. Characters present their part of the conversation, and stand by while other characters do the same in their turn. Little of the conversation between them seems organic or responsive. These characters say the things that characters in these situations seem like they would or should say. In the case of RUR-2020, placed in a real world environment, it makes the characters seem stiff and awkward, while in Oil Babies it turns the characters into functions of the dramaturgy.
Oil Babies compounds this by inserting commentary on the text from outside the text. Key words and phrases are echoed, ghostly and portending, in the middle of dialogue apropos of nothing. This faintly echoes a Greek chorus but adds little beyond reminding us of things we’ve heard before.
In both texts the information overwhelms the drama. In RUR-2020 it suffuses every situation and spills out of the characters like so much Star Trek technobabble (though on the night I saw the audience was predominantly made up of health and medical science professionals, so perhaps the close exploration of the ethics and practicalities involved was more to their taste.) In Oil Babies it tumbles out of the peripheral characters in scenes that often begin naturalistically (actors on the exercise bike talking like friends at the gym for instance) but slides into duologues or monologues puctuated by sobering facts and statistics.
Kalive’s direction of Oil Babies is visually very striking. It begins with the three performers crouched together amidst ground-hugging smoke and lurid primordial swamp-coloured lighting (Lisa Mibus’s lighting design deserves great deal of credit in this production). Their costumes are variously panelled with a reptilian skin patterns: in this first moment they are a giant lizard.
It sits on cretaceous rock, unaware of what is about to occur as the air fills with the roar and heat of an epoch ending explosion. Kalive wipes out the dinosaurs before our very eyes and then wonders aloud at the ethics of reproduction in this sixth great age of extinction. The argument plays out between a lesbian couple (Fiona Macleod and Jodie Le Vesconte) who struggle with surrogacy while their gym friend (Kali Hulme) inserts herself into their discussion with facts about climate change, evolution and (a little confusingly) the Big Bang.
In a time of fake news, raw data begins to feel fetishized. Oil Babies left me feeling a little like I’d been in a conversation monopolized by someone who had finally got around to watching An Inconvenient Truth. Not that the science presented is wrong: it’s all frighteningly true. But the excitement of discovery that these torrents of data reflect suggests a naivety that I can’t find quite credible. Maybe if the play was set 15 years ago? Did I miss that maybe?
I was also a bit conflicted about the nature of the couple’s relationship itself. I found myself left with questions about the choices that formed these characters. Mainly, why does Macleod’s character take the responsibility of terminating the pregnancy onto herself, excluding her partner? Why does this have to end badly for them when the world is already ending? Why does it end in a betrayal? Why do these characters have to pay the price of our tragedy? In these questions I hear echoes of Fleur Kilpatrick’s call a few years back for a moratorium on the rape and murder of women in theatre. Can’t we have just one story where the gay characters don’t have to be sacrificed to underline a point for the rest of the world?
Oil Babies and RUR-2020 both approach enormous ethical and environmental issues with ambition and passion, but for me they both feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task. To risk being glib, the end of the world is no small thing. These works are well intentioned and are deeply engaged with the approaching catastrophe. Perhaps too deeply to clearly see where the drama is.
RUR-2020, by Rohan Byrne, directed by Georgia Symons. Performed by Josiah Lulham, Yvette de Ravin, John Marc Desengano, Sarah Fitzgerald, Louise O’Dwyer and Ben Sheen. Presented by PlayReactive At BioFab3D at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne as part of National Science Week. (Closed)
Oil Babies, written and directed by Petra Kalive. Movement Director, Xanthe Beesley. Assistant Director, Lyall Brooks. Set design Andrew Bailey. Lighting Design Lisa Mibus. Sound Design Darius Kedros. Costume Design Harriet Oxley. Performed by Kali Hulme, Jodie Le Vesconte and Fiona Macleod. Northcote Town Hall. (Closed)