10th July, 2018
Featuring: Elly Beaman Brinklow, Jesse Dupré, Valeria Ross, and Sophie Taylor
Haste Theatre’s current work in progress, Where the Hell is Bernard?, is an exploration of a dystopian future in which people live dreary, monotonous lives devoid of any pleasure or individuality, controlled by an authoritarian power known as the Vine. The story follows Pod 17, a unit of four women who dress in matching platinum blonde wigs and shapeless khaki jumpsuits and move, work, and live in unison and silence. When citizens are “evaporated” at age 50, it is Pod 17’s job to sort through their possessions and assign them to new pods for reuse. However, one day a citizen named Bernard does the unthinkable: rather than proudly stepping up for the honour of this death, he defies the social conditioning and ends up on the run. Pod 17, left holding a box of his posessions and clothes, finds cryptic and poetic instructions hidden within them, encouraging them too to break free from the Vine and embark on an adventure to discover themselves and the humanity denied to them.
This performance is a creative mix of mime, live song, movement, clowning, and abstract dystopian drama. With only six characters including the disembodied voice of the Vine and Bernard’s spiritual presence, portrayed by the four onstage actors through puppetry and mime, we see the futuristic society solely through the Pod’s experiences. The set, designed by Georgia de Grey, is flexible enough to stand in for a number of settings, from factory-style office to nursery to nightclub to forest, and is reminiscent of classic 70s-era sci-fi: white, glowing, and minimalistic.
In fact, much of the atmosphere of the piece is very much like twentieth-century sci-fi, with its anxiety about totalitarianism, the future, state surveillance, technology, and loss of connection to nature and maternity – it was impossible not to think of Fahrenheit 451 as the pod members explored an outlawed library. This re-emergence of narratives from the Cold War is a trend which reflects the current sociopolitical climate, most obvious in the success of the recent TV serialisation of The Handmaid’s Tale; however, in this new era of dystopic “speculative fiction”, the centre of the thematic anxiety tends no longer to be technology, but rather humanity, and this is also true of Where the Hell is Bernard. Although the core of the Vine seems to be a giant glittering server, and its maternal/authoritarian disembodied voice has hints of AI about it, an exceedingly clever twist on the ending suggested that instead, the villain of this story is an inherent part of the human condition. Can the new generation tear down a broken and oppressive system in order to create a newer, fairer, freer society? Or are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of our parents? Is all social struggle pointless if the powerless are always corrupted by power as soon as they attain it? Even if none of the concepts in this show were exactly innovative, their presentation through this type of performance art was ambitious, and the ending helped create the payoff which the piece had lacked up until that point.
This is not a finished work, evidenced by some discrepancies between the events onstage and the plot description online, as well as a number of plot holes and issues with the fictional world’s lore (if pod members are all totally uniforms and identity-less, why do the “evaporated” citizens seem to have been allowed such unique costumes and possessions, and why are they being recycled on an individual scale? Why are the pod members literate if reading is banned and not necessary for their work? If the Vine is so omniscient and omnipotent, why do they struggle so to catch the four pod members on the run? Why was there a forbidden rave club apparently up and running for the women to experience alcohol and flirtation, and who was there with them?). However, the abstract, surreal nature of the shows was such that I was able to mostly suspend my disbelief and enjoy the beautiful synchronicity and dissonance of the performance before me, and contemplate its questions and themes without examining too closely the vehicles used to take me there. I expect, too, that many of the flaws will be ironed out in further development, and that when I drop by Assembly George Square to see them during their Edinburgh run, the show will be of even higher quality. So, taking into account the in-development of this piece, its ambition, the skill of the performers and devisers, and the way it made me turn it over and over in my mind afterwards, I am satisfied that Where the Hell is Bernard? is deserving of four stars.
Apologies to Blue Elephant and Haste Theatre for the tardiness of this review.