Tuning in rather than turning up

Cian Dunne discusses the online theatre experience in a review of To be a Machine

On a Tuesday night, my friend and I sit down in the living room of our shared flat and go to the theatre. It is not yet dark outside and we can still hear the hum of Dublin traffic through the windows. The performance is To Be a Machine (Version 1.0), adapted by Dead Centre productions from the non-fiction book, written by Irish writer Mark O’Connell, published in 2017. Rather than turning up, we tune in for the evening’s entertainment. Having received his link to the scheduled performance earlier that day, my friend connects his laptop screen to the TV through the magic of a HDMI cable in a nonchalant display of tech-savviness. With no commute to an actual theatre, there are no preliminary pleasantries; no awkward fumbling past knees to locate seats, no hasty switching off of mobile phones, and no initial scanning of the stage after the reveal of the plush red curtains. Instead, it is simply a matter of pressing play and adjusting the volume to taste.

The show opens with a close up of Jack Gleeson, playing the role of O’Connell. He acquaints us with the strangeness of his stage early on in the performance. He checks the time on his watch, which showed 7:29pm, proof that the performance is both live and authentic. He laments that while we cannot be physically present, at least we have the technological means to be there in some sense. The camera reverses to a view of the audience: a gallery of faces on iPads on stands, like a view of the aberrant Zoom call of nightmares. The sight is defamiliarizing; the embedded silence disconcerting. We sit off-centre at the back of the virtual auditorium which switched to a point-of-view-angle from our own section. Gleeson points out that we might ordinarily have been disappointed to be so far away and so peripheral to the centre of the stage, but, of course, that consideration was quickly made redundant given that the angle swiftly changes again — a reminder of the theatre-turned-cinema property of the production. Viewers are required to upload short clips of themselves in various states of being prior to the show, namely staring, laughing and sleeping. These reactions are later played at appropriate times during the piece in response to Gleeson’s prompts. They do little to replicate genuine human reactions; instead they are processed as eerie intermittent interruptions of an equally eerie silence.

The original book is a content and genre melange of travel writing, philosophical digression and literary allusion; the range of concepts and information lucidly communicated through the perfectly penned prose of O’Connell in the role of gonzo journalist. The book is centred on the exploration of transhumanism with O’Connell travelling around America and the world to learn about the various pursuits of transhumanists those aiming to overcome the “modest problem of death.” Their methods range from merging with technology itself as the next step in human evolution, preventing the decay of the body through cryogenic preservation and the uploading of consciousness into the computational clouds. The stage version focuses on three chapters from the book. It moves away from the source material and instead draws our attention to the distanced format of the play, necessitated by the effects of the pandemic, and the novel possibilities that arose from it. The content and form often join together as one; style and substance complement each other in a seamless symbiosis.

In his book, O’Connell begins from a point of scepticism. He never progresses further beyond a non-committal ambivalence towards the end goals of the transhumanist movement. He finds comfort in the beauty inherent and availability in the finite nature of existence, which makeslife so intensely beautiful and terrifying and strange”. The play adds to the feeling of cognitive dissonance elicited by this question. At one point, viewers are asked to write into a shared chat what they miss most about going to the theatre. We opt for the generic “sense of community,” though we are beat to it by several others. The communal experience we have been starved of has been innovatively solved by Dead Centre, or at least worked around through a willing engagement with technology. The novel, and the play to a more overt extent, force us to consider what other problems can be solved by the acceptance of a fully technological future.

O’Connell is a constant presence through his observations and opinions, though he is never in physical focus. However, towards the end of the play, he replaces Gleeson on stage, as its major concern becomes clear: a meta-merging of actor and author wrapped up in the existential dread of inescapable death. His appearance is unexpected and strange. Yet, like us, he is there, but not really — just another face on an iPad screen. When the play ends, the curtains are not drawn. Our TV screen fades to black. It is dark outside now, and we emerge from the theatre and back into the physical world.

Cian Dunne

Cian Dunne is the Student Living Editor, and a Junior Sophister student of English Literature and Russian.