Digital technology promises so much: convenience, control, your wildest desires just a few clicks away. What this technology can’t do, though, is tell you what it all means. How has 24-hour access to the internet changed our relationship to the world and the people around us? Or, if we can’t stop it from taking over, does it matter?
The set design by Anna Gardiner immediately alerts audiences to the digital dimension of You’re Not Special with cords, keyboards, screens, and CDs dangling from the ceiling. These old school artefacts of digital technology hark back to earlier days of the internet, before it was integrated into nearly every aspect of our lives and there was greater wariness about its influence. Over the years, as screens became thinner, wireless took over, and some devices disappeared altogether for streaming services, the physical presence of digital technology has become less conspicuous, easier to slip into our lives without notice. In Sam O’Sullivan’s newest work, the sinister side of digital technology as a harmful reliance or addiction comes to the fore.
You’re Not Special features a love triangle that traverses the boundary between the digital and the real to reveal the complexity of digital technology’s place in our lives. Dan (Arkia Ashraf) and Ellie (Kate Skinner) move in together during a whirlwind romance, but pretty quickly tensions arise as Ellie’s demanding new job intrudes deeper into their lives. Unbeknownst to Ellie, the couple’s riffs are exacerbated by Dan’s growing addiction to the internet, specifically the online girlfriend experience offered by a character named April May (Ariadne Sgouros). In the end, both choose the seductive possibilities of their devices over each other but with rather dire consequences.
At the centre of this new script is the domestic drama of a couple stretched to its limits by dissatisfaction, exhaustion, frustration, and the general banality of work. Samantha Young directs these scenes with an ear for the enormous contextual pressure informing Dan and Ellie’s relationship. It comes to a head when Ellie discovers Dan’s addiction and unloads her own fears about the overwhelming presence of digital technology in their modern lives. It’s a common but perhaps not convincing argument about the loss of human connection and fears of over-reliance on technology. The most compelling moment of the production, though, comes in the final scene when Dan oversteps a very real boundary to confess his love for the April May actress Victoria. This jump from digital to real, from fantasy to threat, is an all-too-familiar experience for women and other marginalised people and it illustrates very clearly the existence of different worlds, different perceptions of reality, but not necessarily the expected difference between digital and physical.
The three cast members work seamlessly together to slip between scenes and sensibilities. Ashraf’s Dan is a typical artsy bloke in-keeping with the Charlie Pickering or Matt Okine brand of cool nerd. Skinner’s Ellie is more sophisticated and alternates between playing along with Dan’s boyish charms and crippling him with her disbelief. Young’s direction paced their relationship well with a subtle attention to missed moments and double meanings running rife in each conversation. Their crumbling relationship was both recognisable and compelling.
Sgouros’s performance, though, was exceptional. Her ability to shift the tension of the scene with a crinkled brow or surprise grin was unpredictable and gripping for its discomfort. In particular, she shined under Martin Kinnane’s lighting design which cast her as girl-next-door under warm washes when necessary and then switching to a digital dream with turquoise and hot pink side-lighting. In either instance Sgouros’s performance was complex and expertly controlled.
Whether your relationship to digital technology is dictated by the productivity demands of capitalism or mere loneliness, it would be hard to escape the trajectory of digitisation now, especially after a year of Zoom classrooms and Google birthday parties. Maybe the answer is psychological: learning to recognise the difference between fantasy and reality, the distance between yourself and someone else.
You’re Not Special is running at Kings Cross Theatre from March 5th – 20th
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