Etcetera Theatre (venue)
21 November 2018 (released)
23 November 2018
The rat has always had a bad rep. From shouldering the blame for the bubonic plague to inadvertently leading to the Pied Piper swanning off with the children of Hamelin, these rodents always get it in the neck. The pejorative connotations linger.
This clever, amusing and worryingly relevant play - from Gaël van den Bossche and directed by Josh Hinds - aligns the rat genus neotoma (pack rats) with a majority section of the human populace whose enabled existence, every thought, utterance and subsequent action is administered through the unseen and always heard ‘Darren’ (voiced by Patrick Whitelaw).
Like Orwell’s Big Brother’s all-seeing system of control and 2001’s benignly malevolent HAL, ‘Darren’ (no futurist allusions with this name) prods the proles along, puts their words in their mouths and assures them that everything is just fine. With their ego function chemically suppressed at birth and nasal inhalers a rewarding dopamine high (a knowing nod to Aldous Huxley’s neuro-nullifying ‘soma’ in Brave New World) this a rat race where no one has any designs on winning.
The elites in this ‘society’ the ‘Cons’ (the ego-conscious who make up less than 1%) are fully-functioning ego-driven organisms prone to spontaneity, fear, anxieties who preside over the ‘Rats’ who ‘rationally’ adhere to the hive mind.
Lynn (Hayley Osbourne) is a stapler, her ascribed role from birth giving new meaning to the word ‘stationary’, her engagement with colleague Robert (Mike Parker) is stilted, dispassionate and monosyllabic; she simply repeats the data fed into her. However, she has long sensed she is different and has saved enough money to undergo the transition to become a ‘Con’, the attraction of the rules of attraction greatly appeal this algorithm is a chancer. However, the grass isn’t always greener as being riddled with unprompted thoughts and desires is more hassle than it’s worth for Lynn.
George (David Clayton) is a Con working for the presciently titled ‘Ministry of Oversight’, married to Katy (Charlotte Bloomsbury), a lab rat who facilitates the transitioning process. Tampering with the human condition has long been fraught with danger and this particular experiment produces unprecedented results.
The play posits the questions: what is it to be human? Do emotions do us a disservice when it comes to interactions, how do feelings of anxiety prohibit and inhibit us and are tech-facilitated expressions ‘real’ and ‘sincere’ or simulated representations of who we think we are and are we caught in a crossfire of connected loneliness and distracted boredom? Crucially it also asks ‘given the opportunity how appealing would it be to live in blissful ignorance’ suggesting that being an automated drone may not be as hellish as it appears.
Ultimately we are asked to imagine a time and a world where your every movement could be guided at the flick of a switch, your capacity for memory eradicated in place of a central electronic nervous system monotonously handing out context-free titbits of information to help you get from A to B. All free will negated, all emotions sublimated, the locked grid of humanity ushered through channels of banality and traps of no-return. Not very SMART that, is it?
Like Black Mirror’s glimpses of gloom ‘Rats’ is a stark warning about the leaping without looking into the technoverse that engulfs us. Giving away too much of ourselves can lead to dire consequences.
Rats is on from 20/11 – 25/11 at the Etcetera Theatre (above the Oxford Arms, Camden, 265 Camden High Street, NW1 7BU