By Grae Burton
Presented by Theatre of Love
Basement Studio, Auckland | August 14-18
I haven’t seen a lot of sci-fi theatre. I see a lot of theatre, or at least more than the average person, so I’m always intrigued when I have the opportunity to see a show that isn’t from a genre considered traditionally theatrical. It’s the reason why Free Load piqued my interest. And, for better or worse, I can’t say that I’ve seen a whole lot else like Free Load.
Free Load is set in the future, 2055 specifically. The world is in a constant storm and humanity is slowly rejecting ‘The Real’—reality from a interactive virtual reality service called V-Tality. Here, we find programmer Jeanie (Alisha Lawrie Paul). She has created a program called Free Load which, as I understand it, branches and clouds the already tenuous line between reality and virtual reality. With the help of her virtual servant, MESSENGER (Jason Hodzelmans), she creates a virtual version of her sister Epinine (Emanuelle Bains) in the program. Her partner Mark (Matt Baker) worries about her, and attempts to stop Jeanie before she gets too far in.
I’m hoping that’s an accurate synopsis of the play and doesn’t misrepresent anything. Notably, the structure was played around with, as the disclaimer in the program indicates: “… Theatre of Love were given license by the writer to take the script and alter it for their production needs. Significant alterations were made in the structure and narrative position of scenes within the script presented in the season’s performance you will see.” This rings a few alarm bells for me. The revised structure makes the play quite difficult to follow; scenes cut midway to another time and reality, and I found it equally difficult to discern a reason for these transitions. It provides neither emotional nor narrative clarity, and for a play that already has a complex plot, it seems to muddy the waters more than is necessary. I can’t speak for the structure of the script outside of this production, but my gut feeling is that no script can truly be improved by significantly altering the structure. It would be interesting to view this production with the original structure in place, or even just to read the script in order to see what difference the changes made to the overall experience of the plot.
On the subject of the script, Grae Burton has established a compelling world with a convincing set of rules that play on science-fiction tropes without ever feeling clichéd. I was genuinely fascinated by the world outside of the main story, and would be curious to see it explored in another play or another medium—it seemed like a place that would make a fascinating video-game or film (which is not at all a criticism). Burton’s characters are vividly drawn, even if the emotional connection and development is lacking. Again, this might be due to the plot structure issues, but a key moment in Jeanie and Mark’s relationship towards the end was a shock to me because it didn’t feel like either character was at that point in the relationship. The dialogue is generally fine, but occasionally becomes rote or esoteric places, and I didn’t understand the constant references to Van Gogh.
Burton engages some compelling themes throughout the piece, such as what counts as life or what counts as reality, and what happens to a person’s psyche when they’re intentionally breaching both of those basic human concepts. It’s not new to the genre, but they are themes that I don’t see explored a lot in theatre, and it’s nice to see them broached on a stage. It’s a world that I find genuinely stimulating, and it deserved to be explored more.
The visuals are astounding. The Basement Studio is a versatile space, but the set and projector design by Burton, as well as the lighting design by Sam Mence, transform it. Projector screens are used in the place of actual screens, and are lit in such a way that it gives them an inhuman and slightly menacing feel. The lighting helps to define the different plot threads as much as they can be defined, and is generally just pleasant to look at. My only quibble with this element would be the transitions; nearly every scene change involved a two-second long projection of characters moving. My guess, after reading the programme, would be that it’s to give the sense of someone viewing multiple files on a computer, but it seemed more like a technique to allow the actors time to move between scenes—which is fine, but after the twentieth or so change, it became repetitive. Overall though, the design of this play is great and it uses the Basement Studio space in a new and inventive way.
As Jeanie, Alisha Laurie Paul provides the emotional centre of the show, and gives it a weight to stop it from flying off into the theoretical. She’s an immensely charismatic presence, even as she goes into darker places. Matt Baker plays off her effectively and is an earnest and likeable foil as the troubled Mark, trying to keep Jeanie from going too deep into her virtual realities. Jason Hodzelmans and Emanuelle Bains play the virtual realities believably and keep them interesting long enough so they become actual characters and more than just devices. The acting throughout the production is generally good, and gives it a necessary lightness and humanity.
Helmed by Jane Yonge, Free Load is a show with a lot of potential that just doesn’t quite make it. The world is there, the design is there,and the actors are there, but it cries out for an unaltered version of the script on stage. If you’re looking for some sci-fi theatre though—of which, as I’ve said, there is not a lot of—you could do a lot worse than Free Load. It’s interesting, intermittently engaging, and fun to look at, even if all the elements ultimately don’t cohere.