Plays about reality, and the role of technology in defining it, are enjoying something of a vogue in Oxford at the moment. 2016 saw an adaptation of The Nether at the Oxford Playhouse by Knotworks Theatre. Jennifer Haley’s thought-provoking piece on the ethics of virtual reality was followed last summer by Poltergeist’s Garden at The North Wall. Fittingly, then, the North Wall’s next student occupants are Lysis Productions, who are presenting Chloe Taylor’s debut play Hereafter this 6th Week.
The play follows Eva, a woman grieving over the tragic death of her husband in a chillingly ambiguous distant future and her experience of bereavement therapy using VR. This is a play that is ostensibly perhaps about the controversial role that VR technology might play in our future, here shown with regards to revitalising the dead. But as Taylor (the writer-director of the piece) tells me, this was not a play that emerged from any fears or abounding curiosity about the specifics of technology. It’s a piece that instead is about loss, and grief, and coping mechanisms, with the technological aspects providing a fascinating lens through which to explore this.
I was shown two scenes, the first a delightfully disjointed two-hander between Eva (Martha Harlan) and her boss (Lucy Miles) as the prospect of VR therapy is introduced to the former. Harlan is excellent; there’s a brittleness to the physicality of this portrayal which ramps up the tension without any dialogue needed. She instantly feels like the only sane person in the room, which provides a nice counterpoint for the menacing, understatedly comic aspect Miles brings to her character. Eva’s bewilderment at her boss’s approach to her grief throws up some nice ripostes in the dialogue and provides an arena for the inevitable clash between the corporate and human experiences of loss.
The piece really came into its own in the second scene I was shown, an emotionally-charged conversation at the kitchen table between Eva, her brother (Chris Dodsworth) and her late husband (Lee Simmonds). The unspoken weighed heavily without becoming oppressive, and all three actors shone. Harlan’s guilt-driven monologue sat at the kitchen table was a tantalising mixture of compelling and heartbreaking, whilst Dodsworth managed to find real depth as ‘Brother’ struggled to find the words to express his own grief. There was a real rapport between the siblings which, as ever, suggests assiduous character work has been done in the rehearsal room. Special mention must go to Simmonds for holding the scene together; his slight and bird-like physicality fantastically conveyed his virtual presence and his facial expressions managed to walk the line between sadness and despair without seeping into melodrama. The dynamics Taylor has fostered in the scene allowed for some poignant exchanges of quick witted dialogue epitomised as Eva hopes that one day “I wouldn’t have to keep wondering where you are”.
This looks to be a really exciting piece of new writing and Taylor has expertly used an ostensible exploration of future technology to shine a light inwards, rather than forwards. A play that’s both intelligent and profound, this is not one to miss.