It was sixth week Hilary, and rumours of a deadly new virus were circulating like sneeze particles in the Gladstone Link. Spring was beginning to blossom across Oxford, and in a tiny student room on Turl Street, theatre company Chaos Productions was grappling with the archaic BT Studio bidding procedure.
Our Trinity Term production of The Tempest was going to be groundbreaking — immersive, engaging, politically explosive. Foregrounding the theme of power, we wanted to emphasise the colonial, gender, and class overtones of Shakespeare’s final masterpiece.
When set in a climate post-apocalypse, The Tempest is a perfect vehicle for asking pertinent and poignant questions. Who is entitled to — even thrive — in times of dystopian crisis? Who defines what it means to be human? What are the impacts of personal and political trauma?
We were particularly interested in shaping an affecting experience both emotional and physical, one which would operate on all sensory levels, creating a sense of turbulent synaesthesia akin to being storm-tossed in the titular Tempest. Disoriented sailors and carnivalesque spirits would interact with the audience, and blue silk would immerse the theatre, making the audience active participants in the play. We even planned staging scenes in darkness, lit by torches or fairy-lights for an eerie effect.
In a context of rising political tensions, climate crises, and post-truth rhetoric, our production was intended to seed itself into the viewer’s mind and force them to confront a fundamental question — what is left when the facade of society collapses?
Needless to say, none of that happened. Because the facade of society did in fact collapse.
Within weeks, Trinity had been cancelled and a national lockdown instated. Theatres across the world pulled their curtains shut. The opportunities available for student drama melted sadly away like interval ice cream. We spent the next few months grappling with our new reality, the struggles of VirTrinity (trademark pending) and running a little thing you might have heard us talking about called Hypaethral Magazine. Having spent a few months mourning the demise of our plans, the sudden shock of having spare time in the Vacation finally hit us and we set about writing of our own original play, Simulacrum.
Set in the near future, the play chronicles a radical trial to upload human consciousnesses to the internet. It is told through the interactions of the trial’s first participant, the dead-yet-not-dead Julia, with her family, friends, and the enigmatic doctors who exercise absolute control over the Simulacrum. When Julia begins to lose her memories, it marks the start of a painful deterioration. Intense and immersive, Simulacrum aims to explore the dark consequences of unlimited access to the internet, corporate capitalism, our understandings of ourselves, and what it truly means to love someone.
Although the two plays are very different, we found that certain experiences we’d hoped to achieve in The Tempest could be transferred to Simulacrum, especially the immersive nature. We decided in true 2020 fashion that it would be safest, given our previous let down, to plan for our current circumstances continuing and write for web cam technology. This led to an increase in intimate, intense scenes with only a couple of characters — Zoom is, after all, not overly compatible with a classical chorus. Taking inspiration from other creative projects that were trying to sustain an exhausted and crippled arts community — particularly Staged and the BBC’s Talking Heads — we were encouraged to believe that although unusual, Zoom could be an equally satisfying media to work with.
This has meant a number of things: people having to isolate makes our rehearsal schedules easier rather than harder, but we also had the wonderful and completely bewildering experience of conducting over eight hours of Zoom auditions (which did require a hefty pizza antidote).
The ability to immerse an audience isn’t the only theme shared by our two productions. We believe theatre has a unique power to speak to society and encapsulate historical moments due to its inherently interactive nature. While the dystopia in which Simulacrum occurs is not our current predicament, its themes are fundamentally influenced by modern Western capitalist society. The subsumption of identity, the disorienting impact of the internet, the disconnect between government and citizen, and the rise of unethical mega-corporations — all these features are encroaching upon humanity and have been thrown into sharp relief by the Coronavirus pandemic.
You would think finding a suitable group of people to produce such a novel production would be difficult, but we’ve seen an amazing show of enthusiasm from auditionees across the University, and we’re delighted to announce our cast here: Cosima Aslangul, Elise Busset, Henry Calcutt, Georgina Dettmer, and Gregor Roach, as well as Leo Kitay who’ll be producing some music for us. We’re very much looking forward to working with them and seeing what the next six weeks bring!