What’s it going to take to save the Earth and, more specifically, the human race from climate change? Moving to Mars? Building a large enough space craft to hold the entire population? Or maybe a tiny little micro-organism found on a far distant planet that eats carbon at an unbelievable rate? The flight crew of the Lily of the Nile have staked everything on that little purple plant but first they have to bring it safely home.
Dr Sarah Taylor (Kat Glass) nearly didn’t get funding for her exploratory mission to a far-flung planet but she thinks her work could save humanity, and also make her really famous. Their space craft is only big enough for her, her samples, and the pilot Jessica Holland (Courtney Bassett) but they’re on their way home now with high hopes for what the tiny purple plants and their voracious carbon appetites can do for climate change on Earth. That is, until they literally hit an unexpected obstacle which throws their ship, their lives, and their mission into jeopardy.
Luke Thornborough’s script combined the classic sci-fi existentialism of stories like Interstellar with the pertinent concerns of climate change as an exploration of the lengths humans will go to for survival. In their long hours together, the characters revealed their deeply human motivations of love, fear of death, and ego which brought them into the stars, but also their complicated beliefs about what comes afterwards. As Dr Taylor explained her belief in God and Holland grappled with the contradictions of faith and science, the script considered the various ways to find meaning in the chaos of existence. The direction, also by Thornborough, prioritised the gravity of these existential and theological questions with high emotions moving between revelry, regret, hope, and primal fear. In the later moments of the story, as the characters became reconciled to their probable deaths, the swinging of tone from morbid practicality to giddy humour was authentic and humanising. However, the particular discussion of faith and God, Dr Taylor’s realisation that her life-long faith was not a ticket to safety, and her renunciation of her beliefs were heavily handled, betraying the gentler touch applied to other elements of the production.
The production design was pragmatic in its translation of intergalactic travel onto the Earthly stage. Thornborough, Glass, and James Wright’s set design included a large control board through which Holland controlled the ship and communicated with Earth, two small tables for Dr Taylor’s lab and the kitchen, and a series of tubes, pipes, and lights that formed the functioning frame of the spaceship. Michael Goodwin’s lighting design incorporated on-stage lighting rigs to create more focused lighting states, particularly as the ship deteriorated. But the lighting was most active when combined with Thornborough’s sound design representing the crashing of space debris, sucking air through air locks, and rumbling through the loss of control of the ship. These elements of disaster were customarily conveyed with red washes and flashing lights, a recognisable if tired approach to creating an outer space atmosphere. The costuming by Courty Kayoss was similarly in-keeping with other sci-fi dramas with the characters in practical overall suits leaning more military Top Gun than avant-garde Star Trek or traditionally robed Star Wars.
Glass and Bassett gave solid performances with a recognisable funny and straight-guy dynamic that added momentum to their conversations. Bassett endeared herself to the audience early on with a heartfelt lip-sync performance of David Bowie but her performance further developed with an honest humility in Holland’s backstory and outlook. Glass was a no-nonsense scientist without any real sense of humour, a characterisation which maintained the seriousness of the mission’s aims but also didn’t garner much sympathy from the audience.
What stood Alone apart from other existential sci-fi was its connection to Earth and, particularly, the backstory to Dr Taylor’s research into the possibly planet-saving micro-organisms. Mixed in with her discussion of faith and forming one of the major crises of the ship’s demise was Dr Taylor’s ego. As a woman in the male-dominated field of climate research, Dr Taylor regularly positioned herself as an underdog not only with something to prove, but with something significant to lose, which meant she kept her research on the ship, threatening not only the lost samples but also all of her data and analysis, too, if the ship did not return to Earth. Placing so much at stake against the fallible human conditions of pride, honour, and ownership added another element of interest and intrigue to Alone.
Being in space forms a vacuum around the experience of being alive, trying to survive, and throws everything else into stark relief. As such, floating silently through space, the absurdity of the world’s decision to leave the fate of humanity in the hands of an underfunded duo-woman mission into far outer space is overwhelming. And, yet, it’s more than we’re doing now.
Alone ran at the Seymour Centre from September 6th – 10th as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival
To help support Night Writes, please consider tipping.