When it comes to Science Fiction in movies, television, and literature we are spoilt; but it’s not often that the genre makes its way to the stage. Perhaps, quite obviously, it can be difficult to fulfil the visions of the future or alternative universes in person, but as our dual reliance and distrust of technology grows (the never-ending news feed about social media privacy paying testimony to that) it seems a fitting time for the National Theatre of Scotland's show about artificial intelligence.
“Interference” consists of 3 short stories, each performed by the same cast and directed by Cora Bissett, and all set in the same non-descript post-apocalyptic universe in which our characters reside in a complex called “the company” that looks after them and provides eternal job security. If the parts sound familiar, the rest of the show will be as well. The intrusive government/corporate body, the replacement of emotional connection with technology, the difference between a human and a machine, it is all unavoidably derivative. We are now a very hard audience to surprise when it comes to the genre, ironically due to the very technology that it revels in criticising; we’re familiar with the question about whether androids dream of electric sheep, we’ve covered big brother, we’re so used to the inter-linking episodes of technological paranoia that I needn’t even reference where we know it from. This would be fine if it played like an ode to those origins, but instead it is presented as fresh, even though it feels anything but.
That’s not to say it is not well executed, the production value is certainly there and the performances are very strong. The first act, entitled Darklands, written by Morna Pearson, stars Shyvonne Ahmmad and Nicholas Ralph as a couple trying to conceive and get on with their lives in the cold, sterilised environment of the company that gently controls everything they do, right down to their snacks. The choice of having them communicate almost exclusively with their artificial intelligence Moira (voiced by Maureen Beattie) plays nicely with the idea that our machines know us better than the people around us. Their perspectives are polar opposites of each other; Ahmmad’s Brie is sceptical of everything and aggressively wound up, while Ralph’s Logan is lovably optimistic and bouncy, and not in the least concerned about the implications of his choices. The two balance each other perfectly, each acting as an antidote for the other and preventing the story from being either too steeped in cynicism or stupidity.
When it first begins the audience are treated to that joy of figuring out how the world and the narrative works, but once it has been decoded it follows a predictable story. The same is true of the second story, Metaverse written by Hannah Khalil, whose "shocking" ending becomes apparent early on and it becomes a waiting game until it is revealed. It is sincerely disappointing, fantastic though Beattie’s performance in it is. The final act, Glowstick by Vlad Butucea, continues its predecessors’ habit of relying on established ideas as its conceptual basis, but does have an unexpected and impactful emotional punch. Moyo Akandé gives an outstanding performance as both robotic carer Ida and as a mysteriously inhuman woman in Metaverse, and here she shines with Beattie in the play’s tragic final scene.
If you’re happy to tread familiar water, you will find what you are looking for in “Interference”; fine acting, good direction, and a clever design that transports you to this imagined world, however familiar it is. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, this is a show that is best enjoyed if you aren’t much of a Sci-Fi fan, if you haven’t been exposed to the last 60-odd years of the development of the genre. Then you might stand a chance of being surprised. Three stars.
Whispers from the crowd:
"I thought it was really good, I've kinda pieced it together, [Beattie] was incredible. The lighting and music were incredible."
"Yeah it was like Black Mirror on stage, really futuristic. Really made you think."