The quest for immortality is age old. Over 2,200 years ago, the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang became enamoured with the idea of ruling forever and so put out an executive order to search for a potion that would give him eternal life. While he is thought to ironically have consumed poisonous mercury sulphide, pursuits like his still remain the domain of the wealthy. Today it is Silicon Valley’s elites who fund scientists to research potential biohacking technology in order to transform themselves into superhumans with extended life-spans. And it was this technology-directed pursuit that inspired Tmesis Theatre’s latest production.
Beyond Belief is about a same-named company who can access our personal discarded data from bodily engrained chips to resurrect us as cyborgs. Designer Stephanie O’Hara has envisioned this futuristic world through a building block set with a circuit board print and embedded digital screens that move and testate to create this unsettling world.
When Simon (Charles Sandford) loses his wife, Chloe (Eleni Edipidi), he is grief stricken but resistive to Beyond Belief’s quasi-religious sounding product marketing; he is distraught by their intervention after Chloe’s death, but eventually succumbs to them and allows Chloe to be resurrected. The new version of Chloe, however, is unable to function even remotely human-like. In one funny scene when Simon asks if she remembers their wedding she says yes but can only list algorithmic facts: 322 guests, 200 people liked the dress, he was crying out of happiness (Facebook’s photo recognition perhaps?).
In its exploration of grief, Beyond Belief is similar to the Black Mirror episode ‘Be Right Back’. A young woman loses her boyfriend but discovers there is technology allowing her to communicate with an AI imitation of him, including a full-bodied android. Yet, in ‘Be Right Back’ the AI is more intelligent then whatever is used by Beyond Belief and so creates greater difficulty for the widowed girlfriend than for Simon, who by no means considers his resurrected wife the same as before, nor does he have the same level of choice around creating her. This limits the show’s exploration of grief, particularly given there is no dialogue prior to her death – in fact the physical theatre choreography doesn’t even make it clear they’re in a relationship.
While music from Meike Holzmann does much to lift the piece, the show felt disjointed at times, as if its creators struggled to piece together all their ideas. In particular, when Chloe meets Elvis (Nick Crosbie) in Heaven it adds some light hearted amusement, but it would have been more interesting to have spent longer considering the Rock ‘n’ Roll legend’s figure of immortality – that he is forever impersonated and to have even referred to this Meta quality of the show. Crosbie is better as the Beyond Belief’s creator with his scientific justification for the company’s actions. But Jennifer Essex’s sinister Exec Vice President, at times felt caricature-like in her villainy.
Beyond Belief toys around with many interesting ideas – not least with its ending to cease physical existence and upload our minds to ‘The Cloud’. But when approaching a topic already mastered so well by Black Mirror, the play needed to be tighter to provoke the same level of thought.