Future Facing: National Theatre of Scotland's Interference

The National Theatre of Scotland puts sci-fi on stage in a new trilogy of plays set in the near-future. The Skinny heads to their canal-side HQ to discuss robots, ethics, virtual universes and the future of the human race – no biggie

Feature by Katie Hawthorne | 11 Mar 2019
  • Interference, NTS

Can you really, truly, trust a machine? Interference, a trilogy of new plays commissioned by the National Theatre of Scotland, explores the ethical glitches in the shaky new relationships forming between humans and technology. Director Cora Bissett and playwright Hannah Khalil meet with The Skinny to tell us how these are stories about next year, or next week, rather than the next century.

Near-Future Stories For Now 

Interference is comprised of three new plays – Hannah Khalil’s Metaverse, Darklands by Morna Pearson and Vlad Butucea’s Glowstick – all of which are set in the near-future; a rich, weighty spot for science fiction, because it feels too close for comfort. The process began when Bissett was infuriated by the Tory party’s insidious attempts to shred the Human Rights Act 1998 and she started exploring the lack of legislation to protect our digital privacy. “We give so much of ourselves and our private lives, intellectually and emotionally, through so many different means,” she says. ”Sometimes it’s consensual; sometimes it’s really not.”

“And this was before Cambridge Analytica!” adds Khalil. “She’s a proper Cassandra.”

Bringing Science Fiction to the Stage

Speculating about potential future doom has been humankind’s guilty pleasure for as long as we’ve been telling each other stories, but it’s a thrill commonly confined to film, telly or books. Science fiction is rarely found on stage, and Bissett wants to change that. “Well, we’re not competing with Blade Runner – of course we’re not! But if you distil everything down to the moral choices that humans are faced with, within our vastly evolving technological world, you don’t need to show all of the kit. That’s not the interesting bit.”

Instead, the trilogy drills down into theatre’s particular speciality: all-too-human moral dilemmas. Morna Pearson’s Darklands explores the ethics in gene editing by putting to the test a couple desperate to conceive. Vlad Butucea’s Glowstick is inspired by the trialling of robotic care for the elderly – a legitimate potential solution for an aging population, a disintegrating health care system and blood-sucking private care homes – but at what cost? Opening the trilogy is Khalil’s Metaverse, in which a mother meets her daughter in a virtual space, to help her with her homework. “It really sets a tone of intrigue and ambiguity right at the start,” Bissett enthuses. “You’re not going to know the answers in this world you’re stepping into.”

New Technologies in Theatre 

Khalil, a Palestinian-Irish playwright, has employed new technologies in her work just once before. Her play Scenes from 68* Years used Skype to communicate in real time with an actor in Palestine, and Metaverse was inspired by virtual reality technologies used to help families communicate across geo-political borders – but also by a particularly bad bout of the flu. “My daughter and I have a very physical relationship!" she says. "We’ve never been separated unwillingly, but I was quarantined in a room in our house and it was hideous. Borders are a very live topic, and as someone who is Palestinian, it’s not easy for me to travel [there], or for my family to come out of Palestine.”

Apps like FaceTime already fracture our sense of distance; a conversation can take place just as seamlessly over a matter of metres or thousands and thousands of miles, and Khalil's exploration of virtually-located human relations nudges this idea further. The big question, she says, is: Can digitally mediated communication ever fully replace physical human interaction? Can we create technology that's as good as a proper hug? 

Lots of Trickery

This leaves Bissett with the simple question of creating a whole virtual metaverse on stage. Easy, right? “Ahhh. There’s lots of trickery!” She laughs. “We have some quite smart tricks. I don’t want to spoil it but projection is getting us out of a lot of holes. Hannah’s script can look so simple. There’s just a single line on the paper that says: ‘Daughter logs off and disappears.’ We’re in a small, site-specific space, how do we make a human go away?!”

“Not my problem,” Khalil grins. “I did say to Shyvonne [Ahmmad, the actor] – can’t you do that, then? Can’t you disappear?”

Interference will be staged in a new office block in Dennistoun, and is the first site-specific performance this year for the NTS. Video projection and ‘trickery’ aside, such a commonplace setting feels eerie in itself – a reminder of how soon these technologies could become commonplace. Khalil remembers that, at the time of writing, only Butucea was aware that the tech in his play – robotic carers – was already on the horizon. Since then, she and Pearson have both discovered that their imagined scenarios are much closer to the mainstream than they expected. All this reinforces Bissett’s suspicions: we need to move faster to protect ourselves, and that process must involve a deep consideration of what it means to be human.

“We’re certainly not saying that technology is bad,” she explains. “There’s a real ebb and flow. I mean, we live with it! There’s no way we can switch it off and go backwards. It’s incredible what the human brain has created. The important part is what we do with it. But in each of these pieces I think there’s hopefulness, there’s a resilient human spirit in all of them.”

More Than One Story, More Than One Perspective 

An exchange of ideas and research was central to the project. Bissett explicitly sought out a cohort of writers with different backgrounds, voices and experience levels, to ensure that Interference’s near-future vision is built from more than one story, and more than one perspective. The playwrights then met regularly to share drafts and discuss their work, ensuring that the plays are close – but not too close. Khalil says, “It’s just really unusual to ask three writers who are very, very different in style and don’t know each other at all to write three plays in response to a provocation. It’s quite something that there’s actually a real simpatico between them; all three could be in the same world.”

The end result should feel episodic, like three instalments of the same series. Obviously we’re used to that in sci-fi. For Bissett, it makes perfect sense to borrow framing devices from other media. “People are engaging with narrative in such interesting ways now – like gamers wearing full body suits to be at the centre of their own narrative. We’ve got to learn from this! We keep finding new ways to shape and form and structure stories, but story will never go. It’s the most primal thing we have.”

Khalil agrees. “There’s etiquette to theatre that technology can begin to break down, and we need to allow that to happen. If we want to bring new audiences into the theatre, the way that they watch and engage is going to be different than ‘ssssssshhhh!’” She mimes putting a finger to her lips. “I think theatre can learn to be bolder. Sometimes [theatre makers] can be guilty of waiting for things to happen, and then responding. That’s what I really like about these plays – they’re thinking about what’s going to happen.” It might just be that our urge to discuss dystopian futures could save us yet.

Interference, CityPark, Glasgow, 16-30 Mar