December 2, 2023

Working Title: The Orpheus Project at the Edinburgh Fringe

The first thing you notice is that name. Working Title: The Orpheus Project. It doesn't give much clarity about what is to come. But then clarity and transparency are not something that totalitarian regimes encourage and WT:TOP is set in a London of the not particularly far away future where The Corporation has taken hold of the government. Some might say it's barely set in the future at all, but our hospitals aren't yet sponsored like football stadia and none of us are addicted to electronic machines. Hang on, my phone's just beeped… At any rate Chelsea isn't surrounded by the Israeli-style security barrier it has in the play, or at least it wasn't a couple of weeks ago when I visited the Saatchi gallery.

Between two chairs on the dark stage at C Too in Edinburgh a laptop sits on a table. The screen faces the audience and when video clips from the police state are projected we see them twice, on the screen and on the back wall, as though there is no escape from the propaganda. Clothes racks stand towards the edges. These will be inventively used as beds, tube trains, even a place to hang a shirt.

Writers Jonathan Young and David Hermann have drawn on Kafka's The Trial to tell the interlinking tales of four people living under a totalitarian regime. London has become a book-banning city-state where everything and everyone is subservient to The Corporation. Or almost everything and everyone. Rock star and poet Johnny O has not succumbed, and neither has his father who leads the underground opposition.

Noah Young takes the role of Johnny, an artist succumbing to rebellion-fatigue and now happiest when plugged in to a machine. He also plays Kasper J, a loyal Corporation worker who suddenly finds himself the target of the authorities. Genevieve Dunne plays Johnny's vibrant girlfriend Eliyah, who happens to be the niece of London's dictator. We don't know how much she knows of her uncle's work. Nor does Johnny. There are no such uncertainties about Dunne's second character. She gives the military police commandant moments of humanity but the character's preference is for life as a party apparatchik.

Johnny's underground, half-naked existence is contrasted with that of the staid, suited and booted Kasper J. Where Kasper walks and travels by tube, Young's Johnny rages, flexes and at times appears almost to hover. In their physical scenes together he and Dunne could be dancing, struggling to survive or trying to kill each other. It's hard to tell and Johnny and Eliyah don't know themselves. The freedom Johnny grasps isn't a clear positive. He might refuse to work for The Corporation, but he's keen to spend the time this gains him getting (electronically) high.

The production displays a sincere fear of what could be and warns of a future that ignores individuals and cedes too much power to big business. The script combines elements already seen in dystopian literature, but helped by Bernie C. Byrnes' jagged lighting and the video projections the show creates a tense atmosphere of fear and paranoia.

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