Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Review: 'User Not Found' at The CoffeeWorks Project, 21st May 2019

User Not Found reviewed by David James
Rating: 5 Stars

If I had realised in advance what User Not Found was about I probably wouldn't have gone. The show, written by Chris Goode and performed by Terry O'Donovan, ponders what how we should handle the digital footprint of a dead loved one - something I have recent and painful experience of. But here we are and I guess I'm going to have to take the bull by the horns.

Both set in and staged in a modern cafe, we meet Terry sipping his peppermint tea and observing the world around him. He ascribes identities to the other patrons, idly fantasising about their miniature dramas. Early on, we learn that Terry's ex-boyfriend Luka has died, an event which propels the next 90 minutes of drama. But there's a wrinkle, prior to his death Luka named Terry as his 'digital executor'. This means that a company called Fidelis is now asking him to sort through years of social media posts to decide what to keep and what to delete.

It's a very relevant topic, amplified in effectiveness by Daphna Attias' excellent direction and her team of audio/video artists and technicians. The audience shares tables in the cafe and hears the production through a set of wireless headphones. These play the live audio of O'Donovan's performance but also mix in various other multimedia elements (music, sound effects and so on). 

In addition, everyone is given a smartphone at the beginning of the show. This displays what Terry is seeing on his phone, as well as showing us abstract video sequences that the monologue refers to. On top of that, each table has a networked lamp and under-lighting allowing the technicians to dramatically light the space. 

For User Not Found to work, all of these systems have to work in concert with one another. If one fails they may as well all have failed. Given that a decent rule of thumb in theatre is not to overcomplicate things, it's a minor miracle that this play functions so smoothly and is a testament to the blood, sweat and tears (and money) poured into it by everyone at production company Dante or Die.

The result is worth the effort. Having a smartphone in your hands and watching it navigate itself through social media feeds is a disconcerting experience, and shows us the world through its character's eyes in a way that other shows can't conceive. A less ambitious company might have simply projected this onto the rear of a stage, but cradling an individual device in your hands builds a connection to the contents that's viscerally real.

Maybe a touch too real for me - but I guess this makes me a particularly well-placed critic to judge this show. I thought the way it dealt with picking through the digital detritus of a dead partner was painfully accurate. Figuring out what to do with a person's online presence after they've died isn't something that previous generations have had to deal with, but as the years tick by the amount of data generated by an individual over the course of their lives will grow exponentially. So what's the right thing to do? Do you consider what their wishes might have been, decide on the naked truth or simply mould the person who their friends and family wanted them to be?

Perhaps sometime soon there'll be an accepted way to approach this conundrum, but right now we're groping in the dark. This curation of a person's life is not easy: pruning away the stuff that should remain private and promoting elements in order to create an idealised reality that (after a hundred small choices) can suddenly seem quite artificial. This process is an emotional minefield that the show captures perfectly.

It also understands the less-considered online aspects of a person: with the show showing data on fitness, banking and other apps that aren't necessarily broadcast to the world. Data like this can be a kind of ticking timebomb - just the other day I turned on an old Xbox to find a personalised 3D avatar of my dead partner smiling and waving back at me. Fun times...

I left the show feeling really goddamned miserable, but I guess that's testament to how well it reflected my own experiences back at me. Intelligent and emotionally resonant theatre like this is the kind of stuff that makes seeing all the less-great stuff worthwhile. Huge credit to Terry O'Donovan for cramming so much into his personable yet scarred performance, and everyone at Dante or Die should be proud of themselves for what they've accomplished here. 

User Not Found is at The CoffeeWorks Project until June 2nd. Tickets here.

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