Wednesday, April 07, 2010

"Huxley's Lab" - April 2010

"Huxley's Lab" proved to be a perfectly pleasant evening of theatre. I just hope Grid Iron and Lung Ha's Theatre Company are as disappointed to read that sentence as I am to be writing it.

Their tale of a genetics lab where a new generation of society is being created 'fit for purpose' with a cast including actors with learning disabilities could have been a profoundly uncomfortable, provocative and personally challenging evening for its audience. Lining the audience up in order of height to be inspected makes for an interesting start, but how much more of an impact could have been made had the cast 'inspection' involved giving each audience member a 'perfection score' based on looks, height, weight, eyesight, hair colour? Or simply divide us into Pass/Fail and treat the groups with a different tone. Sure, it may have upset a few people but what a great way to remind the audience how we all constantly judge others - especially those society considers less than perfect.

Similarly, a segment where the audience uses provided fobs to answer multiple choice questions lacks any sense of significance - apart from anything else we don't get an indication as to how we as an audience have responded. Were they even real fobs? How much more involved would it have made the audience feel had their responses had an effect on events/characters in the show?

But then, the audience role in the production is a little fuzzy. We're often treated as 'candidates' and addressed directly while at other times we're privy to clearly private interactions between characters. The fact that there is a longer time period involved also makes it difficult to hang to to the conceit of us as invited observers.

For most of us genetic manipulation/selection is, fortunately, a somewhat abstract and philosophical question and it needs something more personal to knock people out of their comfort zone. To be honest, if I hadn't been going to write about the show here I doubt I would have given it much thought after Monday evening. But having had to give the show and its issues further consideration over the last day or so, it struck me that in a world of even fairly basic genetic selection I may quickly have found my embryonic self on the 'reject' shelf. How many other short-sighted audience members would find themselves similarly disregarded? And be shocked to be confronted by that revelation had the show delivered a sufficient nudge in that direction?

But although the show left us lamenting a missed opportunity to really unsettle the audience, there remained plenty to admire. Its central cast were all very strong - particularly Sean Hay as Dr Davenport, while "the Naturals" in the rooftop garden showed great dedication in delivering their performances despite the howling wind. And of course there is an incredible level of skill in negotiating the audience groups around the building and delivering the technical elements of the show in all manner of locations.

Over three years after seeing Grid Iron's "Roam" it still spikes in my memory when I see images of civil unrest on the television news. And two years after seeing "Yarn" I still hesitate guiltily when looking at impossibly cheap pricetags on clothes. I just don't think there's anything from "Huxley's Lab" that will stay with me that long.

Huxley's Lab has now completed its run at the Edinburgh University Informatics Forum as part of the Edinburgh Science Festival.
Image by Douglas Jones used with permission.