World Without Us

Theatre, Performance art
4 out of 5 stars
World Without Us Sydney Festival 2018 photo credit: Mirjam Devriendt
Photograph: Mirjam Devriendt

Groundbreaking Belgian theatre collective Ontroerend Goed imagines a world without humans

Thanks to climate change, recalcitrant world leaders and the creeping spectre of a population-ending, antibiotic-resistant superbug, most of us have already fathomed a world post-people. But what if humanity completely disappeared in an instant, leaving behind our possessions but taking with us all thoughts, ideas and feelings?

Such is the premise behind World Without Us, an audacious one-woman show produced by experimental Belgian theatre collective Ontroerend Goed. It tracks the progression of the world starting with the moment we vanish, right here in this theatre. The lights go out, the sound cuts, even the audience’s breathing stills in wordless participation in the scene at hand.

For the next hour, a single performer (Karolien De Bleser) narrates, in Attenborough-style observation, how the earth gets on without us, continuously vacillating between the macro (electricity depleting the world over, vegetation carpeting urban landscapes) and the micro (a rat, hiding in the theatre, nibbling on crackers left in a purse). The air is thick with our absence, but with no one left to miss or be missed, the concept of absence ceases to exist.

The script’s simplicity and specificity make it easy to picture the rich images painted by De Bleser, although her mild, soft-spoken delivery in a room that is often near total darkness means we find our minds wandering during the more meandering parts of the performance. It’s pulled back by shockingly poignant lines (“no one will ever see shapes in the clouds again”) or arresting evocations, like when she describes the moment the roof of the theatre finally erodes, throwing light into the room for the first time in decades.

We see the value in the non-preachy, hands-off approach taken here, but a little more emotion in the delivery or humour in the script would elevate World Without Us from a piece that could work equally well listened to as a podcast, eyes-shut, in bed.

The most impacting part of World Without Us comes at the end, when photos sent aboard NASA’s Voyager 1 space probe are projected on stage as strings play. The slideshow of charmingly low-res photos from the ‘70s depict life as the US Government would want aliens to know us by. There’s no narration but the message is clear: these humans, with their sports, and their gardening, and their dinners around tables – aren’t they cute? We’ve realised, over the last hour, that the universe doesn’t give a toss about any of it. There’ll be a world without us, and all the funny little things that we think and do, for a very, very, very long time. So perhaps we’d do well to care a little bit more about them now. And with that thought, the lights come on.

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