In one view, Sanjeev Kohli and Isobel McArthur’s The Quiz, a six-minute comic short written as part of the National Theatre Scotland’s Scenes for Survival, is an easy laugh which feeds off a shared quarantine experience of endless Zoom interactions. But perhaps it is also a highly experimental piece, exploring the dynamics of voice, listening and control in our contemporary virtual society.
The short begins with an exertion of control. Kohli, with his camera just a little too upwards and set against a decidedly un-curated wall, puts his ex-classmates on mute to begin hosting their reunion quiz. The tangle of voices makes way for his alone – but we soon realise that any control is merely an illusion, as Kohli is forced to interrupt his introductory speech to comment on whatever scene is playing out, apparently silently, in the little boxes in front of him. Kohli’s already desperate attempt to command his ex-classmates is first reinforced and then proved futile by the illusory nature of virtual silencing without actually claiming attention.
Yet Kohli manages to control one party in this piece: the audience. We cannot see his ex-classmates packed into the screen like a sports-match crowd; we cannot read the rude comments they type: our only experience of the other callers is Kohli’s commentary on them. His dramatic monologue offers half a conversation where we hear the answer but not the question, and presents the rest of the action to the audience as already-interpreted. This is reliably hilarious, as we are left to imagine what quiz question could have required the consecutive answers ‘salt and vinegar’ and ‘stop and search’, but it also points to a more pressing failure of communication at the core of these virtual interactions. That is, the dramatic monologue reproduces and then multiplies the delayed and disoriented experience of virtual communication by placing the audience at a powerless distance from the conversation.
In the end, McArthur and Kohli’s piece is about listening – about our failure to listen. Kohli, by muting his ex-classmates, refuses to listen to them and sets off on his fourteen rounds of quiz without stopping to gauge his co-callers’ interest or reaction, just as his classmates continue to mock him for an old rumour without listening to his repeated denials. Later, talking just to Roxana, Kohli launches into a monologue about their possible relationship without listening to (or looking at) her warnings that he is on mute, and his words are wasted. I think, in fact, that this is one of The Quiz‘s best moments of writing: the monologue shouldn’t be too theatrical and romanticised given the crass comedy of the rest of the piece, but its egocentricity and total blindness to the reaction of another fits it nicely into this play on speaking and listening. Perhaps even we, as the audience, can be accused of not listening: when James Alcock’s edits cut between different quiz rounds, it is as if we have zoned out for the rest of the questions and are only tuning in occasionally to listen.
If ‘The Quiz’ is merely a comedy, it is successful, if obvious. If it is an experiment in what it is to listen and speak, and control who listens and speaks; however, then McArthur and Kohli have created something thoughtful, poignant, and even depressing – and perhaps, grimly, this makes it even funnier.