There’s something intrinsically confronting about theatre: you enter a space where the performer is right near you, where anything could happen. It’s intimate, but a kind of forced intimacy where your only protection is the separation of lights on a stage and darkness in an auditorium. You can never really be sure how it will play out, though. You can never be sure whether or not the spotlight will be turned on you. Kim Noble’s 2014 play You’re Not Alone does turn the spotlight on the audience, in deep and disturbing ways, but the UK performer gives himself up as a sacrificial lamb as well – not to mention the lambs he’s met along the way.
Noble’s theme and subject is the internet, or more broadly the ways in which we communicate in the internet age. The show opens with random searches and anonymous chatroom snippets. Noble mentions his neighbour and an ex-girlfriend, and shows footage or photos of them. It becomes obvious that his ignoble life will supply the raw material of his theatrical endeavour, whether the people involved give their consent or not. Whether any of this represents Noble’s actual life, or the lives of the people who appear (seemingly unwittingly) in the show, is up to us to guess, or suppose. Or intuit.
The artist’s avuncular disposition often seems like a devil’s mask. He picks a random supermarket employee named Keith as a kind of beacon or symbol of decent humanity, and then pursues the man on foot to his house, in an encounter that approaches unadulterated awkwardness. He forms what seem like genuine online relationships with men who think he is a young woman named Sarah, and undergoes unsavoury physical transformations to convince them of his sexual complicity. It’s ludicrous: raw chicken formed into a paltry simulation of female genitalia, targeted shaving, expert tucking.
It sounds like mockery, but in practise it’s quite the opposite: so delicately conceived, so alive to contemporary notions of the body and its complex relationship to identity, this is theatre that stares social delicacy down. If it seems morally dubious at times, it’s in the service of something important. The profound loneliness of the digital world is shown not as a symptom of the internet or social media but an extension of the loneliness at the heart of the human condition.
This becomes most apparent when Noble introduces us late in the piece to his ageing father, through recordings he’s taken in his father’s house and the hospital in which he dies. The tone shifts instantly, and all possibility of mockery or cynicism falls away. Noble’s father is so beautifully human and vulnerable, locked in an increasing mental confusion and physical deterioration, that the play’s theme takes on a heartbreaking resonance. It also sharpens the question of consent that has haunted the play from its opening moments.
That separation that keeps theatre safe begins to break down; literally, at first – as Noble enlists audience members as stagehands, passes around glasses of wine, and climbs his way over us – but also metaphorically, as we become ethically implicated in what we’ve been watching. Laughter in You’re Not Alone is a morally dubious act in many ways: without knowing if the people shown in the videos have agreed to appear, we are revealing our own indifference to the privacy of others. When he divulges audience members’ personal contact details, garnered from booking information, it comes across as a just retribution for our carelessness.
Melbourne audiences usually get to see two types of theatre out of the UK: slick, overproduced and soulless fare like the recent 1984, or small-scale, seriously personal and emotionally complex work like The Worst of Scottee. You’re Not Alone falls very much into the latter category, disturbing and hilarious, smart and rewarding. It’s exactly the kind of confrontation local audiences should embrace.