Written and directed by Helena Aeberli and Riana Modi, Simulacrum is the first play on the Oxford drama scene specifically designed for online production, and its focus on the radical power of technology fits in expertly with the form. The play chronicles a medical trial in which the consciousness of a recently deceased Julia (Cosima Aslangul) is uploaded to the Internet, enabling her to communicate with her family and friends. As the trial develops, Julia’s grasp of the real world is gradually erased; the play thus descends into a terrifying examination of the limits of human existence that drives its audience right to the edge of comfort. 

Simulacrum – a term defined as ‘an unsatisfactory imitation or substitute’ – is an apt title for this new breed of student drama, the ‘webcam play’. Can an online play live up to its real-life counterparts, or is it doomed to be an unsatisfactory imitation of ‘normal’ plays? 

Written and directed by Helena Aeberli and Riana Modi, Simulacrum is the first play on the Oxford drama scene specifically designed for online production, and its focus on the radical power of technology fits in expertly with the form. The play chronicles a medical trial in which the consciousness of a recently deceased Julia (Cosima Aslangul) is uploaded to the Internet, enabling her to communicate with her family and friends. As the trial develops, Julia’s grasp of the real world is gradually erased; the play thus descends into a terrifying examination of the limits of human existence that drives its audience right to the edge of comfort. 

Simulacrum interweaves a huge range of topical themes, exploring everything from death to religious extremism in a concise one hundred minutes. In a coronavirus-ridden world, the fraught online relationships between Julia and her family seem particularly poignant – the description of Julia’s strange world as a ‘bubble’ evokes confused government advice, and her best friend’s exclamation that “I wish I could give you my hand, I wish I could!” will ring true to anyone who has suffered through endless Zoom calls and FaceTimes with loved ones. Yet references to the pandemic are pleasingly subtle, adding to the play’s tensions rather than becoming its epicentre. 

Aeberli and Modi’s script is beautifully written, replete with poetic metaphors that echo in the audience’s ears long after they are spoken. Aslangul, the play’s focal point, plays Julia with a deep intensity that becomes intensely disturbing. Her perfect performance shuts down any doubts the audience might have about online acting—it’s incredible how much emotional change can be expressed through a web cam, and makes one eagerly anticipate Aslangul’s real life debut. Other stand out performances include Georgina Dettmer as Doctor Emma Greenways, whose sweetness constantly threatens to tip into creepiness, and Elise Busset as Julia’s disillusioned best friend Claire.

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In a world forced online and devoid of physical contact, Simulacrum draws together all our doubts and anxieties about the mysteries of this ‘unprecedented’ existence. As the play’s protagonist puts it, “I am the simulacrum now…and this is how we see the world”. If Simulacrum is the new way we see the world, then perhaps the world isn’t so bad after all. 

Image credit: Daisy Leeson.