Almost 300 people take to the Royal Court’s main stage in Martin Crimp’s ambitious new play – well, sort of. The When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other playwright and Cyrano de Bergerac adapter uses so-called ‘deepfake’ technology to bring these avatars to life, and it’s just on the cusp of telling us more about us as an audience than it does about these fake individuals.
“I went into that meeting fully expecting to be fired,” confesses the first face with Crimp’s narration. He’s your typical old white man, which prompts a knowing laugh from those watching, as if one expects that type of awkwardness or predicament from such a big standard demographic. This set-up lends itself well to comedy when these expectations are subverted, of course, such as a child or baby talking of committing shocking crimes or possessing intellectual thought well beyond their years.
There’s little in terms of a plot, though, or an overarching narrative, and to argue that we are in fact being served up 299 mini-plots in 90 minutes feels like an overstatement, or an exaggeration. Granted, some dialogue crosses over in an amusing fashion and others follow on from the last with a slight change in the phrasing, but as Crimp swipes through the characters, tedium at the play’s repetitive nature is only just about kept at bay by the hope that a twist is yet to come.
We continue reacting to a flurry of falsified backstories as Crimp walks onstage with an iPad in hand. It gets interesting when slowly but surely, the faces blink and become more animated, eventually twisting and bending to match Crimp’s facial expressions. The playwright is self-contained and uniform in his delivery, never once putting on an accent and regularly gesticulating with his hands – even though the technology doesn’t pick that up. It’s a curious back-and-forth between observing every new face which appears, and a glance to see what can be extracted from Crimp’s voiceover in the corner of the stage.
It’s here where Not One of These People is so frustratingly close to making a fascinating comment on deepfakes. They are, in a sense, a digital blank canvas upon which to project personalities – Crimp certainly indulges in that opportunity here, in this play – and that extends to us as an audience.
In fact, I’m reminded of the phenomenon of ‘cold reading’ deployed by so-called ‘psychic mediums’, which is how they are able to glean information from paying audience members while making it appear as though they were able to do so through divination. Part of that involves a selected individual moulding generic information given to them into a narrative which applies to their circumstances or, rather, their loved one. A similar thing happens here, I feel, in that abstract dialogue becomes the playground in which we project our own biases, misconceptions and stereotypes.
What’s disappointing is that it doesn’t go far enough to challenge these, and it could have been a sharp piece of theatre if it did. Sure, several characters state the same aforementioned anecdote around being fired, and faces later transition mid-sentence, but the argument that the script could apply to anyone – or any face – isn’t completely developed, not least because the “fired” dialogue is placed onto mostly old white men whenever it comes up.
Even in its conclusion, when Crimp is alone, without the tech, and reading a lengthy monologue at unrelenting speed, there is an implication that this is designed to be underwhelming, when we can no longer comfortably project ideas onto a fake person. Instead, we are limited to the confines of Crimp’s persona, and there’s something intriguing about that sudden restriction on one’s imagination without the blank canvas. Then again, it doesn’t feel like the strong interrogation of our stereotypes that the play feels like it is building up towards.
It’s even more conflicting when the bill for Not One of These People suggests it raises questions of appropriation, of ethics, and of invention. Yet the bigger issue I feel it fails to explore further, is around the expectations and limitations society places on people at face value, and how much that can feel like an authorship we didn’t consent to. With Crimp on stage as a – or, rather, the – playwright, the morality of this could have been far more cutting.
Not One of These People is now playing at the Royal Court Theatre until 5 November. No access performances are currently scheduled.
Production Images: Carla Chable de la Héronnière.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Not One of These People’ 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.