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Age-Sex-Location

Marcus Markou
Based on a story by Marcus Markou and Richard Redman
Riverside Studios
(2004)

Cyberspace, the World Wide Web, chat rooms, email - increasingly an essential part of modern life, but where is the theatre that deals with them? Two of the characters in Marber's Closer meet in a chat room, and the central characters of Jeanette Winterson's The PowerBook are Internet lovers, but that's about it.

Then, of course, there is the problem of chat rooms and the tabloid near-hysteria which would have us believe that every chat room is full of paedophiles pretending to the fourteen year old boys to groom underage girls for sex.

Marcus Markou's Age-Sex-Location fills this gap. It isn't - thank goodness! - a play about the Internet, nor even one which examines the notion of identity on the Net, but it looks at what identity really is. If I go into a chat room and say I am Tracy, a twenty year old exotic dancer, or Michael, a research scientist, am I lying or revealing the true me? Which is more real, my everyday existence or my fantasy life? Which is more truly the person I am? I may go through life as Peter, theatre journalist, director and writer, but may actually feel much more at home, much more the person I am inside, in the persona of Michael - or even Tracy. In Age-Sex-Location, cyberspace and the chat room become metaphors for our perceptions of our own realities.

It's a complex idea to deal with onstage, and one which requires a different approach, a different technique, and the combination of writer Markou, director and designer Pip Pickering, and video and lighting designer Sven Ortel has created an innovative approach to staging which matches the complexities of the subject.

The start, I have to say, was a bit shaky. In front of the stage, and variously placed throughout the auditorium, are video monitors on which chat room conversations scroll continually. Later in the first act other complementary images appear. The characters are spread, seated, across the stage and address each other by speaking straight out to the audience. The speakers are picked out, not simply by spotlights which fade up and down but by moving lights (for the technically minded, I think they were Mac 500s, but I couldn't see clearly enough to be sure) which open up, sweep onto the speaker, then away and close down, the latter an effect somewhat reminiscent of the old TV screen picture shrinking to a spot before going out.

In the placing of the actors, I was reminded of Sarah Kane's Crave, an example of how effective this technique can be, but, because of the very wide stage, which meant considerable separation between each speaker, the dynamic was wrong and so the effect was minimised.

In the second act, however, the whole thing springs into life. A series of hanging gauzes fills the stage, between which the actors move and onto which are projected their holograph-like video images. At times the images converse with each other and at others - sometimes moving from gauze to gauze - the actors on video interact with the live actors onstage. Interactions and the blurring of "fantasy" and "reality" (but which is which?) become complex and, at the same time, riveting.

The characters (played by a superb cast: Amber Agar, Ormer Barnea, Richard Durden, Jane How, Katherine Jakeways, Ewen MacIntosh and Ed Stoppard - plus two excellent young children, Anna Ledwich and Valborg Proynes, and Steven Berkoff as the Voice of God) seem as uneasy in their virtual roles as in (objective) reality and there is no real sense of resolution, of answering the questions or solving the problems raised. When, at the end of the play, Dave (played by Stoppard), the central figure and founder of Freetopia, the virtual reality in which all have become immersed, more or less announces that he intends to do what the rest should - that is, get a life - we can't help but feel that, given his previous track record in both "lives" as shown in the play, there is little chance of that happening.

It's a fascinating piece, well performed, directed and designed, and if, at the end of the day, it provides no answers, so what? Life isn't that tidy! It has its weaknesses (a tendency to keep a joke going for a little too long: for example, hopelessly inadequate Trevor's, well played by MacIntosh, cross-dressing) but it's a brave experiment, attempting to tackle cyberspace head-on, in a way which has not been done before. Well worth a visit!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan