Saturday, June 11, 2016

'Rapture' at the Etcetera Theatre, 10th June 2016

My favourite science fiction takes contemporary issues to extreme yet logical conclusions. The Terminator looks at endpoint of increased automation; 1984 explores a truly totalitarian society; District 9 is about fear of immigrants; and The Matrix distils millennial consumer angst by arguing that the world as we know it is an illusion. 

These things might feature whizzy special effect gunfights and exciting whiteknuckle car chases (well, less so 1984) but they also shine a light on the society, warn, anticipate and inform us about what may be just around the corner.

Lisa McMullin's Rapture sets out to do the same. Set in Britain sometime after the 2060s, four people arrive in a government facility for a mysterious 'Citizen Review'. They are: bingo-caller Oscar (Darryl Oakley), independent Member of Parliament Kameron (Rik Grayson), Big Brother celebrity Whitney (Olivia Quinn) and drama teacher Cleo (Jennifer Tyler).

The four are audited by a government official (Ryan Kennedy), who eventually reveals that, due to over-population and scarcity of resources, three of them will be summarily executed and only one will go free. The characters must argue for their own existence while being subjected to a prolonged and sadistic interrogation designed to induce some kind of psychological breakdown.

I wanted to like Rapture. I really did. McMullin's nightmare future is perspicacious and prescient, imagining the endpoint of the currently government's disability means tests. This is a play very obviously borne of the Conservative language of 'scroungers and strivers', in which a person's worth is judged by their contribution to the economy. Still, when you realise that this future government is 'deleting' vast segments of the population deemed to be dragging Britain down (council house tenants, the elderly and so on) your reaction is disbelief that things could get this far.

Yet, we live right now in a country where the Department for Work & Pensions has issued written guidance on suicide for staff hired to inform people that they're having their benefits withdrawn. This instructs jobcentre staff to find out what specific method of suicide the person plans, when they're going to do it and whether "they have the means to hand". Mortality statistics (released only when the government's hand was forced) reveal that more than 80 people a month are dying after declared "fit for work".

This is precisely the kind of thing speculative sci-fi (and for that matter, theatre) should be addressing. So it's unfortunate that despite this promising political bedrock, Rapture is a bit crap.

Plagued throughout by lumpen dialogue, none of the characters come close to rising above a broad sketch. These deficiencies are reflected in all-over-the-place performances, the cast pinballing wildly between emotional extremes. Weirdly, the more we learn about these people the less plausible they become; for example the recognisably sadsack underachiever eventually morphs into a genius chemical researcher paedophile.

Worse, there's a cruel streak to the writing that makes for an increasingly unpleasant watch. Each character is effectively bullied into submission; either by dredging up unpleasantness from their past, exposing their secret shame or simply informing them that their family members have been killed. I don't particularly mind plays being cruel to their characters, but here it feels as if nastiness has been mistaken for profundity. 

All this is filtered through the character of the auditor, perhaps the biggest misstep of the production. He's so evil he may as well be twirling a moustache and threatening to throttle kittens; completely at odds with the play's general treatment of its government as banally rather than explicitly evil. The character undermines the satire and social relevance of the play, inching away from reality and towards comic-book villainy.

All this is a damn shame, Rapture's heart is so clearly in the right place that you desperately want it to be good, but instead its like a rejected episode of Black Mirror. By the time the curtain fell I was equal parts annoyed and bored; the play having left an unpleasant taste in the mouth. 


Rapture is at the Etcetera Theatre until 26th June. Tickets here.

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