By Darby Turnbull
Thalia Dudek’s Analog (shortlisted for the QPAS award) is the latest in what I’m sure will be an increasingly long line of plays exploring the dissolution of individual liberties in the face of authoritarian regimes enabled by technological manipulation. Following last years Land Three fates and Dudek return to the theme of young people trying to exist and challenge the totalitarian dystopia they are trapped within. Dudek mentions in their writers’ statement that this particular play was inspired and developed under last year’s lockdown; there’s a rawness and urgency to the text that’s admirable but I wish that they and their dramaturg Ryan A Murphy had spent more time and workshopping had been used to develop their themes, characters and ideas. In its current form it’s a somewhat mixed bag of potential but restrained by some underdeveloped plot points, thinly written characters and lack of nuanced engagement with its premise. Also Dudek is credited as director meaning they have to split their creative impulses in multiple directions when attention to one may have utilised their potential better. My reservations aside Analog has a fertile concept that is well worth exploring.
5 young people are on the verge of committing a coup against Oculus, powerful tech and data company that seems to control every aspect of Britain in the near future. Living off the grid in a bunker they wait, bicker, plan and reckon with the moral and personal ramifications of what they’re about to do. The world building does tend to rely a little too much on prior knowledge of dystopian fiction but it does affectively take for granted just what civil liberties have been eroded; we as a society have seen it all before.
Key plot points will be discussed below.
Sarah Fitzgerald as computer hacker Jaq lends the ensemble a lovely, world weary grace in her role as peacekeeper or ‘playing mother’ as one character describes her. It has been long established that for her this will be a kamikaze mission and she is facing the end of her life with patient resolve as her partner Ezra is falling apart. As Ezra, Laurence Young is provided many opportunities to display his range of terror, panic and anguish. He is one of the more difficult characters in that he is a major liability and the instigator of some of the main conflict. The text draws a very fine line in exploring what is more of a liability, his cis male entitlement or his mental illness. Dudek themself plays the gruff, uncompromising leader Fawn who struggles to contain their own anger and arrogance; perhaps I’m at a disadvantage having Land so clearly fixed in my mind but Fawn is almost an exact replication of Dudek’s former character Aya; to the point that I had to check to make sure there wasn’t meant to be a meta theatrical crossover. I can understand the appeal of this kind of character but I do wish a different personality type had been explored.
Zoe Hawkins’ considerable charisma and sense of humour is a welcome relief in her portrayal of the chemist, Milo who’s developed the blackest of gallows humour and is beautifully matched by Ellie Barkla with swagger and deep integrity as her engineer and romantic partner Scout.
Despite uniformly strong performances the characters and motivations often feel less motivated by their personalities and more by the contrivances of the plot, relying on exposition and sign posting which can take one out of the action. Jaq and Ezra’s story is naturally fraught with Jaq often having to take care of him and defend him to the others whilst her own patience is fraying. It doesn’t help that Fitzgerald and Young don’t display much romantic chemistry, though that may develop as performances progress, rather we’re told the depth of their love and must take it at their word. Through no fault of their own they are overshadowed by Hawkins and Barkla’s Milo and Scout who enliven the action with their very nuanced depiction of their relationship with its own complications. There are some fascinating threads to their subplot that are frequently more interesting as allusions than what is being explored in the main plot. Scout was forcibly impregnated at a fertility farm and escaped with her son, who is her main motivation for a better future whilst Milo renounced her privileged upbringing when her work as a doctor when she was exposed to the more traumatising aspects of their regime, namely working in the kind of fertility farms where her girlfriend was interned.
The strengths of the writing are evident in the banter that the characters share; there’s some very nice, shared humour and relationship dynamics amongst the five but they’re often lost when they have to discuss the big issues. Namely that what they’re about to do will cost hundreds of people their lives and the necessity for complete systematic upheaval. Privilege is discussed in reference to several of the characters; Ezra’s motivations are questioned because his reasons for joining stem from the casual execution of his sister and Fawn harbours their own resentments towards the ruling class for allowing things to get to where they are rather than give up their own comforts. These are rich and messy conversations that I felt could have been explored with much more nuance within the text with different input from each of the characters.
As usual Three fates has assembled an ace creative team, Freya Allen’s set is thoroughly detailed with brilliantly subtle details that inform the text and characters. The graphic design on the Oculus propaganda posters are a masterstroke and provide incredibly useful world building and context. Similarly, Laura Jean Hawkins’ costumes have a muted and practical colour palette that appropriately don’t draw too much attention to themselves. Harrie Hogan’s lighting is striking and austere and contains a multitude of insights into the characters mindsets; the claustrophobia of the bunker, the coldness, the unforgiving lighting all serve to heighten their exhaustion and frail mental resilience. Likewise, Jan Wong’s soundscape features some stirring compositions that play with the silence so whenever we hear something from ‘outside’ it registers with dread.
Analog is a high minded, worthy and often frustrating piece that deserves to be seen for the conversations that it will undoubtedly inspire.