Tuesday, September 26, 2017

In Real Life

Anni Finsterer and Elizabeth Nabben
in In Real Life by Julian Larnach
Photo by Phil Erbacher

In Real Life by Julian Larnach.  Darlinghurst Theatre Company at Eternity Playhouse, Sydney, September 15-October 15, 2017.

Director – Luke Rogers; Production Designer – Georgia Hopkins; Sound Designer & Composer – James Brown; Lighting Designer – Sian James-Holland
Theresa – Anni Finsterer; Eva (Theresa’s daughter in various incarnations) – Elizabeth Nabben
Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 23

In Real Life is a new Australian theatre piece, 90 minutes long, a project originated by the Griffin Theatre Company with development support from the University of Sydney’s Performance Studies Department.  Julian Larnach has also previously been Resident Playwright at the Australian Theatre for Young People.

The result, I think, is an interesting take on our world moving into ubiquitous electronic communication, raising issues which will stimulate discussion for young people.  The outline is that Theresa’s teenage daughter leaves home after the common event of disagreeing with her mother, and never makes contact again.  Perhaps she is dead, but Theresa will never believe that and tries to find Eva, through social media (but discovers that it is illegal to extract her daughter’s details without her daughter’s explicit permission).  She sees Eva in every young woman, including her company secretary (she makes and has become wealthy selling The Drum, combining everything Apple, Google and Facebook can do into an intelligent personal communication device); other officials; an AI robot made to look like Eva which learns to be like Eva as her mother reveals information it can record; and finally adopts her young house cleaner who had been friends with Eva, and whose mother has now died.

Both performers handle their roles very effectively, but the play will need a great deal more development to become more than an interesting idea.  In the end Theresa settles her loss of her daughter by seeing Eva in her invention, The Drum, as if it can replace her loss.  This is a neat idea, but that’s all it is as yet.

So, as an older person, I see In Real Life as a work in progress; but I can see it as worthwhile at this stage to set young people thinking – more about their relationships with their parents than about how technology is taking over our lives, the theme emphasised in the promotion material.

To take up that theme more fully, we need to become engaged with Eva from her point of view rather than only through her mother’s or the maid’s eyes after her disappearance.  Who was her father and why does he not even rate a mention in the current In Real Life?  In real life, why does Eva decide to leave home – perhaps as an escape from her mother’s overwhelming fascination with technology and her ambition in business which leave Eva out of the family’s emotional picture.

To understand and feel for the family so affected by AI technology, the play might be restructured, with the major part showing the mother, the father, the daughter and the cleaner’s daughter from Eva’s birth (when her mother’s business was just beginning) to the climactic point where Eva  feels she has no choice but to leave.  Then we may see the tragic consequence of the mother’s so complete absorption into the new world of technology as she tries but inevitably fails to regain contact with her daughter, and is left with nothing but The Drum pulsating. 

The drama I suggest would take a stand:  don’t allow our fascination with technology, and the accompanying sense of personal power, cause us to destroy our humanity.  Variations on this theme have been played out in theatres since ancient times: modern electronic communication technology is just the latest of our destructive fascinations.  In Real Life as it stands brings the issue to mind, but I would like to see it become the powerful emotional experience in the theatre it could be, focussing on Eva’s life leading up to what for Theresa is the unforeseen tragedy of her child deliberately leaving her.  Maybe the play could then be titled The Drum.

This gives the importance of the issue a Shakespearean dimension.  Theresa then becomes a parallel to King Lear, causing the loss of her only child because of her lack of awareness until she realises too late.  Many older people will understand this experience, while it would give even more to the young for discussion.