If you like Black Mirror – and worry about technology – you'll enjoy this new Australian play
We’re a tech-obsessed society, so it’s not surprising that the media we consume is starting to explore that through horror. The most popular example is Netflix anthology series Black Mirror, where even the internet’s best parodies of the show seem like plausible upcoming episodes. But these issues are also being explored onstage: last week The Nether, about unlawful activity on the relatively lawless internet, opened in Sydney. This week, it’s In Real Life.
A brand new Australian work by Sydney-based playwright Julian Larnach (whose 2015 play Beneath an Oxbow Lake enjoyed a sell-out regional tour), In Real Life is the story of Theresa (Anni Finsterer) and her daughter Eva (Elizabeth Nabben). Theresa created ‘the Drum’, an Alexa-like device that’s part smartphone, part day-planner, part bank account and house keys. There are billions of this device in circulation – it’s more commonplace to be a Drum user than not (if you can afford one). Theresa is a millionaire CEO now, an Australian icon and celebrity, and she acts like one.
Eva, however, has had enough of a life governed by tech. The connectivity you find through the Drum, she tells her mother, isn’t real. Eva wants more human interaction; Theresa wants Eva to join the ‘family business’. They have a fight in their holiday home in a small mountain town, and when Eva steps out into the bush, she unplugs: she’s missing without a trace.
What follows is a close-up portrait of Theresa trying to grapple with her very human grief. She stays in seclusion in the mountains – no longer making fun of her hometown locals – drinking and searching for her daughter. She harasses the young cleaner Joanna (who was briefly Eva’s lover) into drinking with her. Theresa is lonely, and Joanna (also played by Nabben, who takes on a variety of roles, including a smarmy Drum executive) might be able to help fill that void.
Or maybe technology can help. Maybe Eva can be cloned, her personality rebuilt from data in the Drum. This is where it gets very Black Mirror – it calls to mind Episode 1 of Season 2, ‘Be Right Back’, with which it shares no small number of plot points. But Larnach manages to keep the story feeling fresh by embracing its Australianness. There’s a playful humour that cuts through the play’s ominous core, featuring an endearing running gag about John Farnham.
As a story about our ability to form and sustain relationships in 2017, and a close look at the mother-daughter relationship, In Real Life has genuine depth. It’s slow to start, but once the play gets past the hurdle of necessary exposition, director Luke Rogers picks up on Larnach’s momentum to deliver a tight 75-minute thriller. The script could be more elegant – a late scene that reprises the first is essentially a heavy-handed mirror – but it’s a well-executed story idea, and the design (production design by Georgia Hopkins with lighting by Sian James-Holland, and sound by James Brown) plays with sci-fi while remaining grounded in realism.
Finsterer and Nabben both give excellent performances. The former is a study in unravelling, losing her refined edge and ruthless attitude as she reconnects with her emotional side, while the latter is a subtle chameleon, delivering a range of performances that each feel distinctly individual and naturalistic; she never falls into caricature.
In Real Life is solidly structured, tense, and appealingly, casually contemporary. It never becomes so much about the science that you forget about the people involved; it’s a play about our hearts as well as the way we live now, and the problems we might grapple with in the future. If you’ve ever taped over the webcam built into your monitor because you’re afraid of who might be watching, you’ll enjoy this.
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