[Pulling the Plug]
The play begins in the foyer. The Basement bar area has been decorated with messages – I spot a myriad of advertisements among what appear to be snippets of conversations, perhaps emails or texts. This announces the central theme of You Are [Not] Alone Here: that our communication and relationships have become fractured through technology and consumerism.
When we enter the theatre, we find a coloured card waiting for us on our seat. These colours indicate our groups. Throughout the play, we will be asked to read colour-coded messages on the screen, becoming part of the fabric of the show, and I’m immediately excited by this novel use of the audience.
The first scene solidifies the central theme. We listen to an audio recording of two people on a date, and we ourselves narrate the experience with our rhythmic droning, our words tech jargon and advertisements, filtering even this most intimate of moments through the distant lens of the electronic. Once the audience has the hang of it, the cleverness of this mechanism is revealed, as we cannot help but sound robotic, and will become even more so as the play continues.
The story is relatively simple. We meet a woman named Jane (Mika Austin) and watch the all-too-familiar chaos of her modern life unfold. She wakes up, gets ready for work, travels on the bus, spends her day at work and goes on a date. But all the while she is hounded by messages, alerts, calls, the voice of a self-help app (mostly announcing she needs to upgrade to premium to unlock extra feelings), and the audience’s own droning. There is a glitchy rhythm to it all, punctuated by the metronome at the front of the stage, mirroring the structure that seeks to box in our lives. In between scenes, we are asked to create a cacophony of sound (don’t worry; the rules are simple and expert instruction is given by actor Nolwenn Lacire), highlighting further the chaos, the white noise, the anxiety.
“I wanted to write a really stressful play,” says writer/director Amy Mansfield. And I would say that goal has been successful. You Are [Not] Alone Here is an expertly crafted theatrical representation of the stress of our modern lives. The use of sound, projection and the audience captures the worries, interruptions and mundanity that this tech-heavy existence can produce. The constant noise. The awareness of time ticking – deadlines, alarms, zoom meetings, biological clocks. And it links this with consumerism and corporate disinterest. It offers a great encapsulation of our post-modern life, in which the onus to ease these anxieties is placed squarely on the shoulders of the individual, while we are compelled by the greater structures in our lives to be ‘productive’ at all hours of the day.
Through the interaction, the audience becomes not just a participant in this society, but we essentially become part of the machine. As the play reaches its climax, our drones become more fervent, and I feel almost disconnected from the action, part of a collective entity merely following orders.
It is this sense of disconnection (ironically produced by our desire to connect) that the play seems to want to provide an antidote to, or at least an answer. But here I’m not quite sure it succeeds. The climax of the show, and of the anxiety, comes after Jane’s bad date. The man (though he does not appear on stage) keeps harassing her, stalking her, after she has made it clear she’s not interested. It is after Jane suffers this extreme, traumatic experience that she has finally had enough, and makes the decision to delete all her apps and put down her phone. While I think this decision suits the themes of the play, it feels muddied to me by the inclusion of such a traumatic event. Such an experience cannot be solved merely by turning your phone off. Indeed, it is perhaps a different kind of anxiety altogether. This mismatch undercut the play’s resolution for me.
Furthermore, the resolution seemed like a bit too easy of a fix. While it provides a welcome catharsis for Jane’s arc, it still seems to place the onus on the individual – suggesting that everything will be fine if you just put your phone down. And perhaps if we all did so the world would be a better place. But this ending offers little culpability for the corporations and structures that create and enforce this anxious way of life, despite the play’s earlier recognition of them.
Regardless, we end with a sense of hope and ‘true’ connection, as the boundaries of the audience as ‘hive-mind’ break down and we are encouraged to regard each person as an individual again; a recognition of our humanity.
Though there were some issues which I would be interested to see another season of this work solve, it is ultimately a unique and thought-provoking piece which will undoubtedly produce a variety of responses. Though (purposefully) anxiety-inducing, it is also funny, and serves as a great reflection of our society, as well as reminding us that connection can be found in the next seat along; that we are not alone here.
You Are [Not] Alone Here plays Basement Theatre 6-10 April, 2021 as part of Auckland Fringe.