Review by Harry Bower
“Do you remember Club Penguin?” I mean, who doesn’t. Hundreds of penguins waddling around enjoying their life, entering private rooms, playing games. Of course, the penguins were humans, living vicariously through their online avatars. Fisheye, now playing as part of the Omnibus Theatre’s first ever artificial intelligence (AI) festival, places that concept at the heart of its narrative. There’s been an apocalyptic event, and seemingly just two people (that we’re aware of) have survived. Alecks and Murphy are partners, now living inside a virtual reality world controlled by an AI overlord, IONA. When Murphy asks Alecks if he remembers Club Penguin, she is really asking on behalf of the audience, quickly catching them up to speed, and giving some context to the world we’re in.
Read any of the marketing before taking your seats and you’ll see the play described as ‘Genesis 2’, and throughout there are clear parallels; this is essentially a tale of Adam and Eve in modern day with artificial intelligence and more sexual awareness. In many terrifying ways, it’s a much more believable and plausible version of the Adam and Eve story. Alecks is our Adam. A straight white guy firm in his belief that IONA is the saviour, he is using the power of technology to live a perfect life. Murphy is Eve, easily swayed and yet stoic in her rejection of rules and norms, tempted by the forbidden fruit of Phi, an AI generated female (and the serpent, if we’re continuing the biblical theme). Phi’s forbidden fruit is her body, Murphy struggling to come to terms with the caging of her queer self in favour of survival, in a world built by people who represent just a small cross section of society. As writer Sam Pout says in his programme notes, and the play makes clear bluntly, there’s a reason Siri and Alexa aren’t queer icons; these are tools and technologies built by the same people who have controlled society for generations.
The writing ranges from good to excellent, with some standout scenes written suspensefully and patiently, allowing space for a little audience interpretation, but fundamentally being sure of its messaging. At other times I found some of the narrative too vague. I’m still not sure what the feeding pipe was all about, other than clutching at some interpretive double-meaning, and I wished for more of an explanation behind how Alecks became so enamoured by IONA, and what led to he and Murphy’s journey. I understand that the backstory isn’t really the point of the show, but the lack of it made it more challenging to fully embrace the world in the early stages. It is, however, a brilliant concept. It’s like The Truman Show, except nobody’s watching and everyone’s self-aware. Or like playing The Sims, but suddenly the Sims become conscious, and start demanding to know why when everything was going really well, you decided to build a swimming pool, and then delete the ladder once they start swimming.
Throughout the one hour run time the play touches on; AI vs human relationships, morality and religion, queerness and homophobia, sexism, saviour complex, and more. It can occasionally be thematically saturated. Thankfully the comic timing and strong performances by its cast bail it out in those moments. Its four performers are all brilliant, three present in-person, and the fourth acting as IONA via voiceover. Each brings a sense of unique personality and vulnerability to their characters, alongside complex motivations, and a sense of mystique. Ruaridh Aldington plays Alecks with a frustrating but endearing commitment to IONA. Almost cultish, he allows no space in his character’s being for doubt yet allows the emotion to wash over his face in the most raw and unabashed way. Flora Douglas as Murphy is a standout for me in cast of standouts – she performs with a calm determination which allows the audience something to hook onto. Murphy being fallible is key to the emotional journey of the audience. Douglas carries that at her core, stirring a sense of injustice and hope, which builds with every bit of body language, facial expression, and terse line of dialogue.
Claire Noy nails her role as AI-born Phi, delivering lines with the science-fiction robotic tone of voice and the lack of understanding of sarcasm that we have come to know and love about artificial intelligence. It’s a characteristic which might soon be out of date, as the pace of technology accelerates, but for now it serves as much needed light relief in tense scenes, and Noy has a lot of responsibility for getting that right in terms of timing. The cast is completed by Mai Weisz, playing IONA in an accomplished voiceover performance. A suspenseful and well-integrated sound design matches an efficient lighting design, to compliment a novel set (it’s a garden, for Adam and Eve, duh, and if that wasn’t obvious enough there are actual apples).
I really enjoyed my time looking through the window of what could be to come in the future. Fisheye asks many questions and answers few, other than to explicitly declare which of the possibilities would be simultaneously the worst and most likely. That’s not a criticism but a compliment. It is undeniably and movingly thought-provoking. How do we find true connection in a world dominated by tech? How can we protect queer futures when everything we’re building for the next stage of artificial intelligence is being thrown together by straight white dudes? “For a species which fights so hard to be alive, why is our primary goal to destroy it?” All valid questions. Perhaps the most foreshadowing part of this production is its final line, delivered by IONA to Murphy, but really aimed at the audience; “Good Luck”. Fisheye suggests we might need it.
Fisheye is playing at Omnibus Theatre until 09 July 2023 as part of their first ever AI Festival. For more information and tickets visit: https://www.omnibus-clapham.org/fisheye/
Photos by Alicia Bridge / Bridge Portraits