The UK lockdown has forced many of us to reevaluate our relationship with technology. As we are restricted from face-to-face interactions, many of us are becoming increasingly dependent on our phones to provide a substitute, and although our access to things like Facetime and Zoom have many benefits, being stuck within the same four walls, day in, day out for three months makes burying ourselves in the rabbit hole of endless content easier and easier. We use technology to fill the voids in our lives, but what happens when all there is, is void?
Within is a psychedelic, cynical critique of the commodification of happiness in an increasingly digital world. It follows the story of Joe, a depressed and isolated man who downloads an AI app named S.U.E. which promises complete emotional satisfaction and the revelation of his life’s purpose – if only he allows access to all of his data, and pays all of the hidden fees along the way, of course. In a time where emotional wellness is something you can supposedly purchase with a £9.99 monthly subscription to a guided meditation app, and the increasing humanisation of AI’s, S.U.E. doesn’t seem too far a leap. Furey’s premise and the overall bleak tone of the production could easily be compared to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror or Radiohead’s concept album OK Computer.
The piece itself was well directed and well performed. Millie Webber’s performance as the voice of S.U.E. is just the right balance of uncanny and reassuring as she remains eerily calm throughout. Stephen Smith is also very convincing and uncomfortably relatable as Joe. Although Within was originally staged for live audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe festival last year, it lends itself very well to a digital platform and feels very relevant to the current situation.
However, towards the end of the show, the writing seems to run out of steam. Around the midpoint of the story, Joe gradually realises that S.U.E. is a scam targeting lonely people desperate for an instant fix for their problems, but after this is established, it becomes repetitive. There’s only so many times Joe can lose his patience, only for S.U.E. to talk him back down again before it becomes noise. Additionally, the revelatory experiences under S.U.E.’s trance become increasingly mind boggling, leading to a slightly confusing ending where his consciousness is somehow uploaded onto his laptop. It left me unsure of what exactly the writer is trying to say.
There’s a lot of interesting insights on so-called ‘McMindfulness’ and whether plunging the darkest depths of ourselves can really be the key to happiness if the only way we gain access to it is through capitalist structures, but as the story veers further towards science fiction rather than philosophy at the end, it gets lost in the dazzling blur of green lights and children’s faces. It’s unclear whether Furey is challenging the platitudes offered by mindfulness circles such as ‘happiness comes from within’, whether he is critiquing the commodification of spirituality under capitalism, or whether this is an open ended discussion about the philosophical movement of transhumanism. There’s a lot to be left explored in Furey’s writing, and I can’t help but wonder whether the play needed a little more time to explore these depths.
With a little refinement of the message, and perhaps some restructuring of the story, I think Within could be something really eye opening for its audiences regarding the cult of mindfulness and our need for instant gratification via technology. There’s something very engaging at the core of this story, and I’m eager to see what Joseph Furey and Threedumb do next.
Within is streaming on Facebook Live via Threedumb Theatre until 28 June 2020. For more information and tickets, see Threedumb’s Facebook page.