One of the main side effects of the digital age and social media that is most often talked about is the ease with which people slip into heated and frequently hostile arguments with strangers. Simple Souls uses this phenomena as the starting point to explore ideas of meaning, happiness, satisfaction, and understanding in the modern world.
A group of vaguely concerned people answer an add on a telephone pole calling for a revolution of sorts and they gather together in an abandoned night club space to begin their project for change. Marguerite (Madeleine Withington) is leading the charge with her idea of staging a satirical gameshow where contestants compete for the title of the simplest soul by parroting the reactionary, inane, and poorly thought-out arguments common online, such as the “slippery slope” argument or the inability to hold two events as non-mutually exclusive. Marguerite’s idea stems from a burning anger for the ways this broken logic impacts on policy and social attitudes towards things like complex international relations, war, poverty, and climate change.
Her criticism is sound but her targeting of internet strangers through an experimental theatre production which labels them “simple souls” is fraught and ultimately unproductive. Her raging righteousness is complicated by the space’s caretaker Terri, who challenges the notion that Marguerite’s reasoning skills make her a better person when perhaps showing empathy and acknowledging human nuance would further her cause more effectively. At the same time, visits from her deceased brother John (Lewis Scamozzi) encourage Marguerite to learn to let go of her anger in order to find personal happiness and peace.
Paul Gilchrist’s new script was written for the tiny, odd venue at the top of Fringe HQ and it fits in well with other Australian theatre shows like Cosi by Louis Nowra, which question the place of theatre in the revolution. Who is the audience? Who is listening to the message? Does the message matter? These shows wade into the waters of the difference between the system and the individual; which one matters more? In many ways, the other members of Marguerite’s quasi-theatre troupe are props for her to find her answer to these questions and, if they draw their own conclusions, they’re excluded from the wider conversation Marguerite is having with herself.
And this focus on the questions, not the characters, comes out in the writing, too. Simple Souls plays with irony and argumentation but there is no subtext. Heavy in generalities and figurative language, the characters’ dialogues are streams of philosophising rather than constructions of narrative or characterisation. In combination with John and Terri’s ethereal presences, the production takes on the tone of another dimension, the separate theatre space where ideas come to marinate.
All that being said, Gilchrist’s direction is consistent and the arc of the production’s argument is easy to follow. The four lost souls who wandered in from the telephone pole are sketchy outlines of lives that aren’t difficult to imagine feeling more whole in their comfort zones; as though they lose something in a room with Marguerite’s anger. Thomas (Simon Lee) is a Facebook combatant, an ally willing to take on any prejudice he comes across; Trudy (Julia Christensen) is a floundering actress who is grateful for this project’s ego boost; Bridget (Thu Nguyen) is quite simply lonely; and Veronica (Alison Benstead) is eager to engage with the boundaries of reality with her talking oven-mit puppet. The four bond well with each other and their leader.
Of the cast, Benstead stands out for her commitment to oddity and the openness with which she played both Veronica and the puppet. Hanssens is a breath of fresh reason at times with a delightfully loose grasp on social interaction. Withington carries the heavy convictions of the production well, playing a believable theoretical shift in her character that comes with a palpable relief.
So, what is the answer? Simple Souls doesn’t necessarily come to a conclusion. Marguerite chooses to let go of her anger and learn to embrace indecision while the other characters seem to remain vague in their affiliations with the revolution. Walking away feels like the right answer to Marguerite’s conceit but the option isn’t available to everyone, especially not the people, mostly marginalised, who are effected by social attitudes and policy surrounding their existence. People of colour, disabled people, LGBTQIA+ people, the working class, and other marginalised people cannot choose to let go of anger about threats to their human rights and their lives and they are often forced to defend themselves in these hostile arguments from which the show began.
Simple Souls is a challenge and a journey where the way you walk out is greatly influenced by the way you walked in.
Simple Souls is running at Fringe HQ’s Top Shelf from November 13th – 30th