In some ways, science fiction theatre seems so obvious it’s startling that it isn’t more common. Mainstream movie-making has adopted sci-fi with gusto, with genre movies representing 70% of the top ten grossing films of all time (in absolute figures; still a healthy 30% when adjusted for inflation). In the thirty-eight years (sorry) since Star Wars topped the chart in 1977, twenty-seven of the top grossing films in any given year have been sci-fi/fantasy blockbusters.
The cultural appetite is well-established. But there are obvious problems with staging sci-fi: scale, special effects—and, closely related, budget. That’s not to say it can’t be done. The Royal National Theatre’s staging of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials remains one of the most talked about theatre productions of recent years, using spectacular puppetry to bring to life Pullman’s daemons. Pioneer, winner of the Fringe First award at Edinburgh last year, relied on the clever use of multimedia to achieve its otherworldly setting.
More recently, the excellent Headlong production of 1984 proved that on-stage dystopia doesn’t require anything more than electrifying performances and some very bright lights to be entirely convincing. Room 101 is all the more terrifying for being a stark white space staffed by anonymous torturers, wearing the white paper suits most closely associated with crime scenes.
At the other end of the spectrum, playwright Susan Gray argues that SF theatre doesn’t need special effects at all. She is clear that “the different rituals and performed behaviors of the characters, signposted through physical interpretation and performative language” can suffice to make shifts in time and space real to an engaged audience.
The success of this approach rests heavily on the text itself, and on the talent that must bring it to life, but lends itself particularly to small companies on limited budgets. This brings us neatly to Talos Fest, introduced by organizer Christos Callow Jr as the first science-fiction theatre festival in the UK and only the second in the world (after LA’s Sci-Fest). A collection of eight original short plays by emerging and established playwrights (including Gray), Talos Fest presents its material using little more than a couple of chairs and the occasional projection.
The evening starts well with Lost Love by Jen McGregor. Two chairs and a mirror become a small car as “Joanna” (Elizabeth Buckingham) appears from backstage, embroiled in a tempestuous phone conversation with her mother. It is Christmas Day, and Joanna is late for her visit to boyfriend Finn and his parents. Thankfully, he’s bought her a satnav for Christmas, much to her mother’s disdain (“Well, I think it’s romantic”).
The success derives from a well-observed comic script and Buckingham’s excellent performance—she carries the one-sided conversation with aplomb and brings the car to life as her fingers sketch the air to set up the new device (“No I don’t want to personalize it! Who personalizes a satnav?”).
When the satnav, portrayed by an awkward-looking, mousy young man in an anorak (Joshua Jacob) steps up, the SFnal element becomes clear. His increasingly obsessive monologue—interspersed with dead-toned driving instructions—cuts through the fourth wall as the device outlines its shabby history (I’m an ex-display model) and proclaims its adoration for its new owner. It can’t end well, given where Joanna wants to go.
This is a great warm up, by turns comic and creepy as hell. The second play of the evening, Drone by Tom Jensen continues in a dark vein. A young man (Justin Marosa), in what appears to be pajamas, picks up one leg and repositions it, staring out at the audience before launching into his monologue. He encounters a drone in the park, which follows him home and beyond, dodging the rocks the young man throws at it, while being disregarded by everyone else.
Marosa makes full use of the stage, bringing his environment to life through his performance. The drone is evoked from nothing more than a flashing stage light, an insidious hum, and Marosa’s frazzled response. The ambiguity of both the staging and the script leaves it open to interpretation whether the device physically exists or belongs in the realm of paranoid delusion, just as the play does not manifest the programme’s suggestion that this is in fact a dystopian setting (it could have been modern London). Nonetheless, it’s another compelling performance.
The third play, Superhero by Andreas Flourakis, suffers by comparison. If Lost Love and Drone explores our relationship with technology rather than feeling like an entirely science-fictional text, Superhero’s connection to the theme is even more tenuous.
There’s an affecting human story here: a child (Niki Koutrou) suffers from nightmares triggered by her father’s desertion some months ago; now she has lost her mother—the only one who can keep the nightmares at bay—in a devastating earthquake (the chair has been knocked over; a suitcase explodes contents across the floor as symbolic rubble). In need of a hero, she strives to convince a disinterested rescue worker (Atanase Ververois) to help her.
Sadly, the cast aren’t strong enough to bring this home, with Ververois’s flat performance failing to lend either humanity, or heroism, to the rescue worker, and underselling his change of heart.
There’s no doubt about the SF credentials of the fourth play, Two Heads on a First Date by Ron Burch. In an unknown future, body modification is all the rage; you can send your body off to the grocery store while your head goes on a date. This is single-concept screwball comedy, with our leads (Annie Brett and an oddly robotic Carlos Lourenzo—was he meant to have had a voice implant?) making the most of uninhibited facial expressions and a draped table to provide a convincing illusion. While it is funny enough to get the audience laughing, both actors struggle to breathe life into an awkward script.
Thankfully, the final play in the first half is back on form. Susan Gray’s contribution, The Other Roof, is an impassioned monologue by a woman on the outside of a biological revolution (Melanie Crossey). Science has pushed back mortality: ageing and injuries are a thing of the past for those who can afford it. Harm has become a sport for the rich, regardless of the impact it may have on others (whether psychological—“How do you know your neighbor hasn’t lost someone to suicide?”, or physical—“Will they start stabbing people in the street next? For kicks?”).
This is by far the most thoughtful play of the night (and the only one for which I would love to get my hands on the script for closer reading), reflecting on privilege, exclusion, and envy. Crossey is an arresting physical performer, owning the stage as she confronts the audience, who stand in for the rich neighbor contemplating a jump from her roof. By turns angry, fragile, and introspective, she demands consideration and respect.
After a brief interval, the festival continues with An Ordinary Man by Elizabeth Adlington (CEO of the New Oxford Theatre). Festival organizer Christos Callow Jr stars as Paul, who is shocked by a series of revelations during a routine trip to the doctor (Aphrodite Evangelatou, who plays it with a confrontational aggression that seems at odds with the role and the subject matter).
Finding himself the subject of a long-term experiment, Paul first rejects then embraces his new status as high-concept guinea pig. Supported by projections that add curiously little to the text or the setting, the performers do their best, but ultimately this feels like a wasted opportunity— our destination a crude shock ending rather than a reflection on medical ethics or gender essentialism.
Crooked Fork by Jonathan Yukich sets a lighter note. A small-town mayor (Miranda Harrison) is bewildered by a rash of accidental deaths that have—we realize as the play unfolds—wiped out all the inhabitants of her town. Detailing the casualties with a glee that suggests complicity, her aide (Drou Constantinou) stalks her around her office as she tries to decide on an appropriate response. Highly amusing, from the comedy deaths to the reflection that politics is, in fact, much easier without a voting population to consider, but the Sfnal element is difficult to spot (the statistical likelihood of so many accidental deaths in one place notwithstanding).
We’re back to strictly sci-fi territory with the last play of the evening, dystopian satire Interface/Interface by Libby Emmons. At first glance, our lead (Niamh Bowe) could be a modern-day social media junkie, sitting in front of her screen in her pajamas. Her inbox is delightfully—or horrifyingly—mundane (marketing, polls, newsletters), and she greets it with a level of engagement that would make advertising execs weep for joy. The future imperfect becomes clear only when there’s a knock at her front door. Unprepared for reminders of the real world, she staggers across to open it and is confronted by her estranged son (Filipe Morays), who has decided to reject the virtual world and risk the dangers of going outside.
There’s nothing new in this evisceration of social media addiction, but Bowe’s depiction of her character’s confusion and dislocation is marvelous. Her face shines as she gazes up across the audience, explaining how the Machine has shaped her life and defending her choice to essentially stay plugged into the Matrix. Morays doesn’t have the chops to match her; his performance lacks the conviction to persuade her or the audience that he is making the right choice and misses most of the emotional beats in the script.
It’s a shame, closing the evening on an uneven note that underlines how big a challenge Talos Fest took on. Powered by passion rather than funding, it speaks well of the organizers that the festival has made the jump from ambition to reality. Sadly, the lack of funding (and perhaps experience) means the festival suffers from variable performances and naïve direction. Only The Other Roof embraces the sort of science fiction that works best on this small scale—personal, provocative and reflecting modern issues through a distorted futuristic lens. While Lost Love and Drone are polished entertainment, they follow a well-trodden path. Other plays lack even the polish.
Consequently, while Talos Fest may have been well received by a friendly audience—excited to see any science fiction on stage—it will struggle to convert more seasoned theatre-goers to demanding more genre in their on-stage diet. It’s not the strongest start for their ambition to start a new movement in European theatre, but it’s a first step. I hope they will attract sufficient attention (and funding) to push ahead with future outings that allow them to develop a more polished product.
Lost Love by Jen McGregor—Directed by Justin Murray
Drone by Tom Jensen—Directed by Stuart Black
Superhero by Andreas Flourakis—Directed by Eirini Dermitzaki
Two Heads on a First Date by Ron Burch—Directed by Mayra Stergiou
The Other Roof by Susan Gray—Directed by Christos Callow Jr
An Ordinary Man by Elizabeth Adlington—Directed by Orestis Dikaios
Crooked Fork by Jonathan Yukich—Directed by Katerina Konstantopoulou
Interface/Interfacef by Libby Emmons—Directed by Stella Keramida
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_highest-grossing_films [return]
- http://sci-fi-london.com/blog/sarah/2014/05/brave-new-world-science-fiction-theatre-or-beam-me-la-right-now-scotty [return]
Anna Chapman has been reading for nearly as long as she has been walking (arguably with
more success, or at least fewer accidents) and has never been shy to share her opinion. Her