Casual cruelties

Dennis Kelly's new play is over-ambitious, sure, but it's not as bad as all that.

In last week's issue of the New Statesman (29 March), Andrew Billen reviewed Dennis Kelly's new play The Gods Weep, in which Jeremy Irons plays an ageing businessman dividing the spoils of his corporate kingdom. Billen found the play "outrageous, ridiculous, over the top, confusingly constructed, politically naive, uncertain in tone, by turns portentous and unintentionally funny". Here, our theatre blogger Gina Allum offers an alternative view.

Jeremy Irons takes the lead in Dennis Kelly's ambitious but entertaining new play for the RSC, The Gods Weep. He plays Colm, the ruthless head of a greedy corporation, as he decides his succession and divides the business between two repulsive hirelings (while passing over his Frankenstein's monster of a son). The inspiration of King Lear dictates the structure of the play, which not so much hitches a ride on the original as gets dragged, kicking and screaming, in its wake.

In many ways, a boss such as Colm, wielding overweening power, makes for an inspired choice as natural heir to the absolute monarch. And the notion that multinational corporations can have a potentially malign influence on affairs of state is hardly a new one. But a company and a country are manifestly not the same thing, and this is where the Lear template breaks the play's back.

The first act is on safe ground in the boardroom. The cast, decked out in grey tailoring, negotiates the black and chrome of the table and the slabs of anonymous corporate design. A sad tree, choked by gravel, completes the sterile scene. I enjoyed the opening sequence of office politicking: John Stahl's performance as Castile, Colm's right-hand henchman, is more than a passing nod to the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, even if he doesn't quite have Tucker's genius for the well-placed expletive. Jonathan Slinger as Richard has a pudgy, bespectacled softness that belies the monster beneath, and Helen Schlesinger's Catherine is a study in chilly, chain-smoking ambition.

As for what the suits were arguing about, I'm fairly sure that Belize was significant. Something very bad was going down in Belize. Belize, you understand, was Bad News. But no matter as to the detail, for it becomes clear that the real news is unfolding back at the office, where the backstabbing and sniping, in a wildly metamorphic stroke, become literal: seriously, with armies and everything. Catherine and Richard swap one uniform for another and are now generals of two rival military factions, razing all before them. This is just too much to swallow. To lift a line from the play, "No, no, no, no, no!"

Baulk and boggle as we might at this leap from corporate to state, let us at least grant it a certain nightmarish logic. The casual cruelties of "culling" the bottom 15 percent of the workforce now translate to real deaths, and are subject to a grisly inflation. If nothing else, Kelly points out the inherent violence of much "business is war" speak, but it's certainly not enough of an insight to string out for half the play.

I had high hopes -- you see how I was gamely warming to the theme here -- that the air-conditioning grilles of the office scenes would be ripped open by hordes of crawling commandos, or by rampant vegetation reclaiming the space after the apocalypse. Sadly, this never quite happened, although a couple of the vents did get politely broken. Meanwhile, and more interestingly, Colm is left out in the cold; the exiled king in the wasteland. Jeremy Irons has taken up residence under the sad, institutional tree, which now doubles as the blasted heath. Again, the staging slightly disappoints: the gravel proves to be something of a mood killer, as the bucolic scenes are accompanied by a less than bucolic scrunching throughout.

The final act has Colm painstakingly wooing the daughter of a competitor that he had once finished off. The lovely Barbara, played by Joanna Horton, does eventually concede forgiveness, and the changing relationship between them is genuinely touching. There is a certain doe-eyed fragility to Irons that lends itself well to the newly vulnerable Colm, scourged by disaster, purified by nature. Their attempts to eke out the good life from squirrels, acorns and sheep have a wistful absurdity about them, and there are times when Irons looks like a Beckett clown as he struggles to fully participate in hunter-gatherer activities: "I could hold things. One always needs someone to hold things."

Kelly's script is a masterclass in refusing the big moment or the tragic scene, and the cast handles the colloquial redundancies and repetitions of the text well -- including all the marvelously gratuitous swearing -- as the actors splice pathos with bathos: "Inside I cried my lungs out. Outside I carried on eating the lamb." And the range of the play is breathtaking: Lear, with bits of Macbeth thrown in for good measure; profiteering big business; personal redemption; lyrical wonder at the cosmos. Over-reaching, probably. Over-long -- definitely.

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.