It doesn’t matter if you know the real identity of playwright Dave Davidson before seeing the Royal Court’s mysterious new thriller That Is Not Who I Am. Everything you thought you knew about the deliberately enigmatic production, we soon learn, is a lie.
Because the play itself is actually a different production entirely: Rapture by Lucy Kirkwood – its real title disguised because of its exploration of the (fictional) unexplained deaths of Noah and Celeste Quilter which are suggested to be state-sanctioned. The alarming details Kirkwood found about a potential cover-up while researching, and her going through “a vulnerable time in her life”, lead her to seek safety in the aforementioned pseudonym. It’s far removed from the original premise of a play about Ollie, a man who has his identity stolen on the internet, but the deception is rather the point: nothing is as it seems.
So who are the Quilters, then? Proud weirdos, apparently. Noah (Jake Davies) is a politically homeless eco-warrior who is “trying and failing to find his tribe” by decrying Western democracy but condemning the alt-right. Celeste (Siena Kelly), meanwhile, is equally conspiratorial as an NHS nurse who indulges in medical myths and claims chalk lines from planes give people dementia. A key part of their relationship revolves around whether the stories they’re telling each other – or indeed, the comments they are making – are actually intentional/real, or just an elaborate p**-take. The decision over how and what people choose to read into runs deep in this production, and its utilisation by Kirkwood is nothing short of masterful.
Look no further than the ‘reading list’ actors were reportedly tasked with looking at during rehearsals, featuring Tony Blair’s chocolate sponge recipe and an adult colouring book of Meghan Markle. Theatre critics and regular theatregoers alike were trying to ascertain and ascribe their own meaning to such abstract information, only to learn its part of something completely different altogether. An equally abstract play about conspiracy theories only expands upon this idea, interrogating what we choose to adopt and accept as reality, and what exactly that looks like in our post-truth world. Perhaps it isn’t so far removed from the play it was billed as after all.
And as the days leading up to the couple’s demise creep closer, we’re guided along the narrative by Kirkwood – well, an actor playing Kirkwood (Priyanga Burford), given her aforementioned “condition”. She implores us, the audience, to trust her as she goes through the evidence of the case “with no agenda”, before making witty remarks about the evidence she has compiled, branding Noah a “narcissist” and disclosing she is a “card-carrying feminist”. Comments about an “expert lipreader” analysing filmed conversations between the Quilters are just as amusing because such a position doesn’t exist. Burford’s Kirkwood claims we’re in a “world which doesn’t understand metaphors” and yet the whole entire play is exactly that on a massive scale. Burford sometimes stumbles over the sheer weight of the monologues she has to deliver (perhaps deliberately so, you can read into anything), we are being fed interpretations of a reality to accept and dismiss as see fit.
Though this is of course my interpretation of a play about interpretations. Another one would be that That Is Not Who I Am/Rapture is a commentary on the use of data and algorithms by conspiracists versus by corporations. And if this sounds like metatheatre, it’s because it is – there’s even a reference to Inception, for goodness sake. Naomi Dawson’s stage on a stage – almost like a blank canvas for Kirkwood’s analysis and dramatisation, and our perceptions – is a clever physical manifestation of the play’s multi-layered approach.
One of the successes of That Is Not Who I Am/Rapture – of which there are many – is the urge to check whether the the Quilters actually existed. The show simply has to be seen to be believed. How and what you believe, or whether you choose to believe anything at all, however, is a different matter entirely.
That Is Not Who I Am is now playing at the Royal Courti Theatre until 16 July. Audio described, British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted and relaxed performances are due to take place on 9, 13 and 16 July respectively.
Captioned performances will run on 29 June, 6 July and 14 July.
Production Images: Manuel Harlan.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘That Is Not Who I Am’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.