Who are we when we haven’t got anything left to hold on to, but the thoughts in our own heads? Without outside influence, with no data in or data out, does it decay? How, and over how long? How far to the breaking point? What does that look like when we get there? Will we see it coming?
Alistair McDowall’s new play for the Royal Court, his second with them following Brilliant Adventures as part of the Young Writers Festival in 2012, asks a lot of questions. It asks a lot more questions than he, or indeed anyone living, can provide the answers for.
Set in a distant, but unspecified, future when the last trees have died, the last birds have sung and humanity has spread out among the stars, a skeleton crew are defunct of duty when their base on Pluto is cut adrift. With a space station that can sustain life indefinitely, it’s just a waiting game. But with the very real possibility of an endless, empty future stretching ahead, the past can play a very real part, in the present.
Being plunged into a world of space-stations and science fiction isn’t for everyone, and to be confronted with a rough and ready, but technologically brilliant (wait until the lights go out!) space base from curtain up may be initially off-putting to some theatre goers. I will readily admit I had never come across something on this scale of ‘spaced up’ before, but part of what drew me to the play was the desire to see science fiction off the screen, out of the page and onto the stage. And it works. The claustrophobia of the set, something that you just cannot communicate to the same effect with a camera and a screen, is anxiety-inducingly effective. The play has also steered clear of trying to create effects which could cheapen or satirise the genre; no space walks or laser guns, sorry! The heart of the play is human nature through and through, the true essence of a good space story, which you don’t need space guns or millions of pounds worth special effects to tell.
The journey X takes you on is one of exploration, and not of discovery. It ambiguously steers away from drawing any definitive conclusions; there is no ‘eureka’ moment, to ‘X marks the spot’. We as audience are in some ways as cast adrift as they are, are left with the omnious realisation that in the end, who we are, where we are and why we are here may not fixed in quite the way we would expect.