Sunday, 15 November 2020

Review: User Not Found (Dante or Die)

Dante or Die

Time for another online theatre review from me. In this post I’m going to be reviewing User Not Found, an immersive video podcast by theatre company Dante or Die. The radio version of this review went out on yesterday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, but here’s the blog version…

User Not Found is an immersive video podcast, created by Daphna Attias and Terry O’Donovan, and written by Chris Goode. It’s a production by Dante or Die, a UK-based ‘site-specific’ theatre company, a digital adaptation of their 2018-19 live show of the same name.

The podcast version of User Not Found was created as a lockdown piece – Dante or Die are a ‘site-specific’ company, and so during lockdown that ‘site’ is the audience’s own individual virtual spaces. Their intention was to translate the live performance (which utilized a bespoke app) into a piece that can be experienced by a socially distanced audience. Working with Marmelo Digital, the company created an immersive podcast that can be viewed from their YouTube channel (or as I did, via theatre websites, such as HOME Manchester).

So… what is an immersive video podcast, and what’s this one about?

The first thing to note is that User Not Found is explicitly designed to be viewed on a smartphone (ideally with headphones). There are warnings that the viewing experience will not be as good if it’s watched on a laptop or desktop screen. The viewer is also recommended to keep the phone in portrait mode, and to full screen the video.

The piece then begins with a ‘Starting Up…’ screen, soon replaced by a phone’s home screen. And there’s your immersive quality right there… your own phone has just become the performance space. It’s slightly disorienting at first – a bit like having your phone hijacked – and the temptation to swipe and click is definitely there. But then our narrator-protagonist says ‘hello’, and it becomes easier to see this as a performance rather than a hack.

The voice that we hear is that of Terry (played by Terry O’Donovan), and it’s his phone screen that we’re looking at. He tells us that he’s in a café, drinking his usual peppermint tea, and he shows us a waterfall sound app he likes to listen to while trying to write in the coffee shop. It’s a gentle introduction, with some tentative musings on our reliance on smartphones and digital networks. A WhatsApp message from an old friend pops onto the screen, and Terry ponders why – despite having once been so close – they’ve drifted apart. We can see on the screen that the last text prior to this one was a couple of years ago, a little detail that feels so real. An unexpected message from old acquaintance now drags with it the baggage of years-old chats. It’s a nice little visual detail, and an early indication of the attention to detail that’s gone into producing this performance.

Of course, the pensive equilibrium of the opening moments of User Not Found is shattered. And it’s shattered by the arrival of more text messages, flooding the screen at a pace that makes it difficult for the audience to catch them all.

Terry discovers that his ex, Luka, has died. And before he has time to process the complex emotions he feels in response to this news, an email from a company called Fidelis Legacy Solutions brings even more difficult news: Terry is still named as Luka’s ‘digital executor’, the person with the power to retain or delete all Luka’s ‘assets’, the fragments of digital identity scattered across social media sites, apps and website. Terry is left with the painful task of deciding what sort of digital legacy will remain now that Luka is gone.

In case this is starting to sound a little like an episode Black Mirror, I will say User Not Found isn’t so much a tech-noir, live-forever-in-the-cloud story, but rather a meditation on grief, and on connectivity. As he explores both Luka’s online accounts, and his own emotional responses to them, Terry takes us on a journey that, while solidly situated in the digital realm, feels so very profound. User Not Found is absolutely a story about grief, and while Terry’s story has some very specific details – and very contemporary packaging – it constantly gestures at something that feels timeless and universal.

User Not Found is an incredibly moving piece, and I will freely admit to shedding more than a few tears in places. This effect is created by the skilful blend of writing – Goode’s script is well-paced and balances the conversational with the poetic beautifully – and performance – O’Donovan’s delivery has a warmth and immediacy to it that is instantly relatable, meaning that the audience feels Terry’s pain keenly. However, the immersive quality of the piece can’t be overlooked either. Yes, the audience is drawn in by the writing and performance, but User Not Found is really an experiential piece, brought together by Daphna Attias’s careful direction and the subtly emotive sound design by Yaniv Fridel (including one particularly emotional use of music).

It’s actually really difficult to pull apart the strands of the piece and say, this bit is why I felt X, or this bit created Y effect. Clichéd as it is to say, User Not Found really is more than the sum of its individual parts.

While I found Terry’s story very moving and – and the piece is pretty up-front about its intentions here – thought-provoking (with Terry addressing the audience directly throughout, and even asking us, ‘What would you do?’ on occasion), I also enjoyed the conceit here. Dante or Die are a site-specific theatre company, and it’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into what this means in the COVID-world. Terry states this early on in his introduction when he says, ‘Our phones are the place.’ On the one hand, he’s reminding us that, for the duration of lockdown, smart devices are the sites to which site-specific theatre is confined. However, there’s something rather clever in the use of ‘our phones’ here, reminding us that, while we may be distanced in many ways (whether locked down in a pandemic, or sitting alone with our earbuds in, listening a fake waterfall in a café) there is a still an ‘us’, and ‘we’ are still connected.

This is an idea that runs through User Not Found. Though much of the story obviously focuses in on Terry and Luka, and much of the emotive content is drawn from an individual and personal experience, the podcast keeps returning to broader questions of connectivity and the ways in which we are networked with one another. How do we connect with other people? What do these connections mean? At times, these questions are explored with humour – a video attachment from a performance artist friend, an interaction with a stern-faced barista – and there’s a little bit of a meta-fictional tip of the hat at one point, when Terry decides to turn his phone off. (I think it’s important that I do mention the humour here, as I don’t want to give the impression that this is an unrelentingly sad performance… though it is pretty sad in places.)

Ultimately, as you may imagine, Terry does come to some decisions about how to handle the tough choices he has to make. Are those decisions the ones I would make? Are they the ones you would make? I guess that’s the most overtly ‘thought-provoking’ part of the show. It certainly raises questions that the audience may find themselves pondering over after the podcast finishes.

But, more than this, User Not Found is a moving and well-made piece of immersive theatre and, at its heart, a cleverly and tenderly constructed story about the human condition. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece, and I would definitely recommend you check it out.

User Not Found is available to watch on demand, for free, until March 2021. For more information, and for a link to the video, please visit the Dante or Die website.

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