leoemercer’s new play, ‘ONLIFE’, began with its only actor falling out of bed. Felix (played by Felix von Stumm) then proceeded to gasp and flail on the floor, like a fish out of water. In its entirety, this daring play questioned whether technology could become “Nature 2.0”, upturning my bed of unquestioned assumptions on the issue.
This was certainly an ‘idea play’, and presented a cohesive case study on the complex, topical issue of the boundaries between humans and technology. The protagonist, Felix, was trying to launch a new tech product — a pair of gloves which would remove the necessity for computer hardware. In the absence of keyboards, touchpads, and mice, technology would become a much more integrated part of the body. However his entrepreneurial goals seemed, to me, more like a plot device used to bring a theme to the fore. A much more engaging part of the narrative was Felix’s attempts to recover from a breakup with his girlfriend, Laura.
Relationships were cleverly shown through dictated emails and Skype conversations, so the audience could only hear Felix’s side of the exchange. This created an interesting dynamic of realities, with Felix continually presenting himself to both his fictitious conversation partner online, and the audience present in front of him. This was exacerbated by the stage layout — the audience lined three walls, surrounding the minimal set of Felix’s bedroom. This meant that von Stumm repeated some of his lines facing each direction of the audience, which reinforced the idea of the overstretched projection of self which the Internet necessitates.
Much of the performance inevitably saw Felix facing an imaginary screen, whether typing or Skyping, and a dramatic performance was needed to retain the audience’s focus. Von Stumm’s energetic physical theatre definitely delivered on this front (although the dialogue, very occasionally, could feel tiringly overtheatrical). Typing on an imaginary keyboard was a core motif, and Mercer utilised this very effectively as a springboard for linking technology with the body. In certain powerful scenes, the keyboard stretched or changed its form, becoming integrated with the earth or the air. As Felix typed, his entire world became a medium for online engagement.
Unfortunately, this connection to nature didn’t extend to Felix’s relationship. The details of his breakup gradually emerged through tortured emails to the ex-girlfriend, and one-sided conversations with his friend Sam. Despite the increased connectivity of our technological age, miscommunication still prevailed. The solitary image of Felix alone in his room served to make the audience acutely aware of the one-sidedness of this presentation. Then at times, Felix became a sort of online being himself. His speech sped up to the pace of his typing, and jerked to a halt as he struggled to find the right word. His jumpy neurosis at the beginning seemed like someone constantly updating their status online. His frustrated editing of emails was a kind of self-negation which questioned whether an online existence truly reflects life at all.
Although technology was Felix’s life, nature seemed to be what he desired to calm himself, and he had a warped relationship with it. Food and farming were often referred to, and shocking scenes where he stuffed his mouth with over-buttered bread showed an insatiable craving for the natural. He later tried to equate wires with tree roots, and keyboards with tree bark.
This disjunction was philosophically intriguing, but again, it was the story of Felix’s struggle to cope with the breakup which I found most moving. Felix described a mirror sculpture in a Swedish café, which beamed fragmented reflections of people up to the ceiling, for all to see. At first, this seemed just another of the play’s connections between our online and offline selves. Bits and pieces of our personalities are imparted. But the same effect happens in our relationships with people. Our changing social image is in flux in ‘real life’ too, and we only ever reveal fragments of ourselves.
Felix began the play like a fish out of water, a human out of the vast electronic stream of which we are now a part. By the end of von Stumm’s intense performance, I was left wondering whether we can survive outside this electronic stream at all, and whether human connections will survive, or be radically altered by, technological immersion. ‘ONLIFE’ was a thoroughly thought-provoking play, which also left me emotionally moved and uplifted.
‘ONLIFE’ runs at the Burton Taylor Studio until Saturday 5th December. Tickets are available here.