Before you read, the bee recommends that if you haven't watched the show yet but plan to, then stop right here! Go in with a blank slate. There are spoilers, then there are spoilers about those spoilers. It's just one of those shows. Read on at your own peril.
Do you want to watch That Is Not Who I Am by Dave Davidson at the Royal Court Theatre? Well, you can't.
Because neither the play nor its writer exists.
Inside the Jerwood Downstairs auditorium at the Royal Court Theatre where the play is staged, guests are greeted by a screen showing surveillance footage of various public places, which makes perfect sense for a play themed on security. But as soon as the curtain lifts, the audience learns of the Royal Court Theatre's latest shenanigan.
In an official-sounding announcement, we are dutifully and apologetically informed that the play we are about to see is Rapture by Lucy Kirkwood, not That Is Not Who I Am by Dave Davidson as advertised on the building's exterior and the play's web page (which, incidentally, had us all believe that our playwright Dave Davidson has worked in the internet security industry for nearly four decades, that this is his first ever play, and that the play is a thriller about digital identity theft).
Rapture is a documentary about the mysterious death of Noah and Celeste Quilter. The announcement tells us that the Home Secretary of the U.K. embargoed the report on the couple's death, and that Lucy Kirkwood faced severe legal challenges and threats during her investigation and work on this play. Because Rapture stops just short of outrightly accusing the U.K. government of murdering the couple for their contrarian views on democracy, capitalism and justice, Kirkwood decided to publish the play Rapture under the pseudonym That Is Not Who I Am to protect herself, we are told.
If Kirkwood's objective of using such a front is truly to subvert scrutiny, it is a hard sell. When has using fake names ever been enough to spare a creative publication the scrutiny of regulators or critics? It is incredulous that Kirkwood is naïve enough to hope that the play's pseudonym and the fictitious Dave Davidson are going to 'protect' her, avert lawful prosecution or preclude artistic review (assuming, that is, that the story she is publishing is even real).
No, the bee is of the opinion that the veneer of fear is all part of the act, skilfully used by Kirkwood to invoke intrigue, subvert tradition and create a memorable theatre experience. Whether the audience enjoyed being thrown off balance like that is a different question; the bee did, but to each his own.
A review of Rapture by Lucy Kirkwood
Rapture opens to Noah and Celeste's first date, set up by a newspaper that supposedly fixes up interested readers to go on blind dates (The Guardian's programme comes to mind). She can't seem to tell fake news from real. He can't seem to resist a juicy conspiracy theory. They bond over Celeste's belief in chemtrails and Noah's disbelief about 9/11. The bee is already worried; when has a menage of two conspiracy theorists ever been a good idea?
The story unfolds and we see Noah and Celeste move in together, get married, have a baby and die together under mysterious circumstances. We hear phrases like "Just because it's in your imagination doesn't mean it's not real". The real question is how they died and who is responsible for it. The play stops just short of pointing the finger at the U.K. government itself.
Lucy Kirkwood's Rapture is a beautiful exposition of the chaos and madness that ensues when you blend
soul-crushing abject poverty,
ever-increasing paranoia of surveillance,
deep mistrust in the state, and
two people fond of conspiracy theories in general.
The stage is fashioned with a 360-degree revolving house, complete with a bedroom, a living room and kitchen, where we watch the couple's life together unfold, and eventually, unravel. Naomi Dawson's set is beautifully immersive and pulls the audience into the rabbit hole alongside the couple. Jake Davies and Siena Kelly are terrific in character as Noah and Celeste respectively, keeping the audience hooked on every dialogue. It is one of the most memorable pieces of theatre the bee has ever seen.
Spoilers ahead. Stop reading now if you intend to watch the play.
Every now and then, Lucy Kirkwood herself pops in.
Well, technically, it is Priyanga Burford playing Lucy Kirkwood who pops in, as it is, of course, too dangerous for the real Lucy Kirkwood to appear herself. Burford breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience in a news anchor's cadence. She describes that the play is based on over 10,000 hours of surveillance footage of the couple's life together, most of it illicitly recorded inside their home without their knowledge. Among those who bugged the couple's house is a strange neighbour, of whom not much is said except that he was a bizarre chap (as though the remaining characters in the play are not) who became increasingly obsessed with Celeste over time.
As the play gets underway, Kirkwood reassures the audience that although the play is only an enactment of the footage, the substance of the conversations between the couple, however, is fully preserved.
Lucy Kirkwood's intention with Rapture is not to keep the truth from us or to unduly seed a conspiracy theory...
...but to spare us thousands of hours of bickering over who takes out the bin and how inane domestic chores are supposed to be properly carried out, or so we are told by Kirkwood.
The Covid-19 pandemic happens. Celeste, an NHS nurse, is overworked. Noah, between jobs and stuck at home, begins to consume the internet’s more radical contents. Eventually, he starts his own video channel, vlogging about his increasingly bizarre thoughts on the organisation of society, markets and government. Celeste was never a great believer in scientific inquiry anyway, so Noah’s ideas naturally appeal to Celeste, who sometimes joins his vlogs. They develop a rather large following, which only serves to cement their distrust of the state more and more with every passing day.
As Rapture progresses, Noah and Celeste Quilter's conviction that the 'state is out to get you' becomes so strong...
...that Celeste elects not to get vaccinated for Covid and develops a visceral frustration at the state for how the pandemic is handled, and Noah is convinced that someone, be it the government or Netflix, is always watching them and/or listening to them. Noah's paranoia about surveillance and data collection culminates in the couple eliminating the internet from their lives almost entirely, to the point of using an old-fashioned, brick-style mobile phone at one point.
Add to this the fact that Noah keeps receiving anonymous phone calls (the person at the other end never speaks or identifies themselves) - whether it is a teenage prankster with a long-term prank plan, or a more pernicious observer of Noah's online anti-democracy campaigns, we never find out. But it is not beyond the realm of possibility to imagine that a secret state operative, concerned about Noah's propagation of increasingly anti-state sentiments, is behind it all. That is the conclusion the play tries to gently nudge us towards, at least.
Celeste eventually quits her job and the couple relies on Noah's lucrative earnings from this videos to get by, until a spate of financial misfortune causes their savings to plummet to near-zero. The abjectness of their poverty is especially striking when Kirkwood talks about the towels soaked in blood that were found in the couple's bathroom after their death. While the official investigators floated domestic abuse as a potential explanation for the blood, Kirkwood believes that Celeste simply couldn't afford sanitary products anymore.
That Is Not Who I Am / Rapture is a story of a couple's descent into ... I dare not say
Blend lockdown-induced isolation, soul-crushing abject poverty, ever-increasing paranoia of surveillance, deep mistrust in the state, and two people fond of conspiracy theories in general. What do you get?
The couple's conversations become increasingly bewildering to the audience. Celeste experiences a 'rapture' - an almost metaphysical epiphany (or mental breakdown?) - in which she supposedly understands everything. In one of their last vlogs before their death, they speak of a 'revolution' that's coming and that they'll have more to say soon. One of the neighbours comments later that the couple was digging little holes along the entire mud path lining the street where they lived; months later, it would be discovered that they were planting daffodils. They begin to speak to each other in increasingly cryptic ways, as though they knew they were being listened to and deliberately wanted to confuse their listener. Perhaps they even had their own secret language.
Anyway, they are suddenly found dead under suspicious circumstances. Lucy Kirkwood explores the possible explanations, including suicide, and argues to rule out most of them, instead insinuating that the state may have, perhaps, wanted to silence its dissidents before they got too loud and influential, and thought it apt to act when the couple began to speak of a revolution and their online following appeared to reach critical mass.
The play ends with a 'covering-my-ass' statement of the Royal Court Theatre (washing their hands off of any legal liability by saying they agree with the government's version of what happened), read out by Burford, when the "real" Lucy suddenly appears on stage to strongly object to the statement and asserts that the couple were, indeed, murdered and the truth is being botched. Until she is herself grabbed by someone, gagged with a pillow, and shot dead with a bullet through the pillow.
This all happens in under a minute. Before the audience has had the chance to absorb it, the curtain falls, Jake Davies and Siena Kelly come back on stage to bow, but before the audience has a chance to clap or the actors to bow, Burford hurries the actors off the stage (ostensibly for their own safety). We wait another minute, wondering whether the actors will come back for bows. They don't. We show ourselves out, still digesting it all.
Watched 20 June 2022 at the Jerwood Downstairs auditorium, Royal Court Theatre, London.
P.S. Tip for cheap tickets to Royal Court Theatre shows. Seats cost only £12 for Monday performances when you book from their official site. Tickets go on sale every Monday at 9 am.
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