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Review of Dare You Say Please at King's Head Theatre - An intricately layered mindbender

Rated 🍯🍯🍯🍯

In a dystopian society, you live freely until you turn 25. Then, you're forced into a room with a fellow 25-year old and you two must decide, within 60 minutes, which one of you lives beyond the room, and which one dies. If you're unable to come to a unanimous decision, you both die. That's the premise of Dare You Say Please.

The two characters in the play both take a utilitarian, consequentialist view of life. Both appear to believe in the principle that the person more 'useful' to society should be the one that gets to live. So the value of a life should be measured based on the effect that that person will have on society? Okay, the bee can live with that, but wishes the play had weaved in a bit of debate between the consequentialist and deontological ways of thinking about morality instead of taking the former as a given, as a default.

To be fair, one of the two folks in the room does correctly identify that the things that one has done for the first 25 years of one's life - the good deeds that become the bargaining chips they can now use in this room, so to speak - do not predict the things that one will do for the remainder of their life should they emerge from the room alive. Even so, they are still implicitly subscribing to a consequentialist perspective, albeit a long-term one, that the view that people's actions have consequences, and it is those consequences (or one's ex ante prediction of those consequences) that should dictate who lives and who dies.

After all, utilitarianism presents serious flaws when one thinks about it carefully. Character #1 wants to live because she is a caregiver and the person she cares for needs her. A strict utilitarian would argue that to justify keeping her alive, one needs to know that the person she cares for is themselves a good person, a useful person to society, and that keeping them alive and healthy is in everyone's best interest.

Another utilitarian may say that we should allow nature's survival-of-the-fittest algorithm to remove those who are least fit to live in society so that in the long term, those individuals who remain are stronger, more prosperous and generally embody more of the <insert-desirable-quality-that-is-naturally-selected> quality.

Yet another utilitarian would argue that caregiving to one person isn't as useful to society as caregiving to several people, so the right to live should be awarded to the caregiver that gives care to the maximum quantity X quality of patients (i.e. some quantitative aggregate of the number of patients times the usefulness of each patient to society).

Further, because the choice is between 2 individuals at a time rather than cherry-picking say the top 50% of most useful individuals from the entire pool, it is by definition inefficient not only because it is subject to the vagaries of human emotion, but also because, depending on the matching process, it can lead to both inclusion errors (saving the lives of undesirable people) and exclusion errors (ending the lives of desirable people), both of which are much less likely if you could just pick the top half lives to save, based on the same set of criteria as used in the two-person tournaments. (Economics nerds like the bee would immediately recognise that this game is similar to the prisoner's dilemma, and the dominant strategy in this game is for both people to pick themselves to save, and thus in a Nash equilibrium, both people end up dying.)

Should the two flip a coin to decide who lives and who dies? As the characters contemplate whether they want to leave their lives to chance, human beings' intense aversion to randomness, and their desire to be in control even if control is, as it is in this case, a mere illusion, comes to the fore beautifully.

Or should they argue, or attempt to argue, on who 'deserves' to live? Who is the authority on what constitutes a well-deserved life and what doesn't anyway? And should this authority award 'deservingness' based on intent or effort or outcomes? This brings us back to square one - should this authority embody deontology or consequentialism as its predominant school of morality, and this choice must be made rather arbitrarily because there is no other way to move forward.

Who's being honest when and who's putting on a facade is never clear, as the two characters toy with strategies to try and read one another, switching back and forth between dramatic outbursts and impassioned speeches on the ethics of, well, being, to humour. Whether humour is used to deflect, or is used as a tool to read the other, is never clear. The characters are slowly peeled layer by layer, neither too fast nor too slow. A lovely little revelation at the very end upends many things the audience may have considered settled. Beautiful.

Four stars.

Watched January 2023 at the King's Head Theatre, London.


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