HAVING carved out a reputation for herself with a number of daring plays, including Perve and Shibboleth at the Abbey Theatre, Belfast playwright Stacey Gregg has emerged as a rare Irish dramatist writing incisively about the times she lives in. Next month theatre fans can look forward to catching two of Gregg’s plays — Scorch, on a national tour, and Override, which is one of the big highlights of this year’s Tiger Dublin Fringe festival.
Produced by White Label, director Sophie Motley, herself an acclaimed new voice in Irish theatre, directs the play, which makes its Irish premiere.
Set in a world that feels contemporary but may actually be a few years into the future, the play is about the breakdown in a relationship between two people who — in a world of routine technological enhancements and human augmentations — have retreated away from technology.
This central premise of an escape from technology is an impulse that most people have experienced, of course, in an age of ubiquitous communication devices, while the notion of retreat to some idyllic haven is itself a theme that goes back to the Romantic poets. Indeed, though her company Willfredd Theatre are based in Dublin, it’s notable that Motley herself lives in rural West Wicklow.
“I’ve been there for the past five years and it’s really important to me,” she says.
One wonders if her move to the countryside inspired Farm, Willfredd’s big theatre breakthrough in 2012, which showcased the values of Irish rural life in a fun and enlightening manner.
“In a sense, it did,” she says. “I moved out to Wicklow the year before we made Farm. It just made me acutely aware of how important the countryside is and how different the pace of life is. It’s about connection and genuine engagement with people, I think.”
In Override, however, the notion of idyllic retreat is complicated by the fact that the play’s haven of retreat is a “constructed” idyll, says Motley.
“I think what Stacey has done with this piece — or perhaps it’s how we’ve interpreted it — is that the idyll is very much an idea and it is very much constructed. So you think it’s a lovely cottage but it’s actually a gated community.”
Evoking science-fiction films like Blade Runner and Ex-Machina, the play centres on the influence of technology and the thin line between human and machine.
“The Blade Runner reference is very clearly something that Stacey has put in,” says Motley. “It’s the idea of an imagined future. In a sense, this piece isn’t sci-fi. I think it’s futurist. But sci-fi works so well because the imagined world has some sort of connection to our world and our society. Through their distortions, sci-fi worlds are able to teach us something about our world.”
The world that Gregg has dreamed up is one “in the not too distant future, a world that goes slightly beyond iPhones and pacemakers and cochlear implants to a time when there are voluntary amputations and human enhancement and transhumanism,” says Motley.
“This play questions what’s inside you. If tech is inside you, what does that mean? If you are a person that has a pacemaker inside you that allows your heart to run, are you a cyborg? If you are a person that has an addition to your brain that allows you to see colour but also UV, then are you a cyborg?”
Taking in issues not just of technology but also of class and disability, the play ultimately examines affection as an integral part of what makes us human.
“It’s asking that question of where is that core humanity when we live in a world of prosthetic envy, and when we are already living in a world of cosmetic and technological enhancement. Where is affection? And where do you find the truth of that affection?”
- Override runs at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, Sept 9-17, as part of the Tiger Dublin Fringe festival