THIS IS NOT WHO I AM, Royal Court Theater
Many articles have documented the theater industry’s post-covid struggle. But even before the pandemic, he was in the midst of an identity crisis, pondering ways to define himself as opposed to entertainment giants like Netflix. Instead of running away from it, It’s not who I am embrace digital culture, chew it and spit it out. It’s bold, gloriously cynical, and painfully relevant in an age of neo-liberalism.
Framed like a true crime documentary, the play unfolds with calculated twists, impending mystery, violence and thrills. The story follows an investigation of Noah and Celeste Quilter, a young couple whose lives are slowly engulfed in paranoia as their relationship blossoms from a first date, to marriage, to parenthood. They fall deeper into a digital rabbit hole and are eventually drawn into their own conspiracy theory.
Conspiracy theories aren’t the focus here; rather, it is the quiet desperation of fantasy to distract from the gloom of modern life. Celeste, interpreted by a superb Siena Kelly, is a nurse who stoically swallows the stress and exhaustion of working in an underfunded NHS. His psychological vulnerability is subtle but tragic; she turns to the allure that conspiracy theories promise to add color to her dismal life. Next to Jake Daviesfrom endearing but tormented ex-soldier Noah, they are tragically electric to watch.
Director Lucy Morrison initially draws a thick line between what she wants audiences to think is real and what is dramatized. She limits the performances to a model of the Quilters’ small apartment with the backstage of the theater visible behind.
The performances pass through the set seemingly in brackets by an actor playing the real writer (“Dave Davidson” unsurprisingly turns out to be a pseudonym) who tells the story and interrupts the re-enactment with commentary, guiding the audience deeper into the subterfuge.
But that line soon dissipates, all is no longer what it seemed, and the line between fact and fiction melts away in a glorious cacophony of metatextual narrative. But then reality and fiction have already blurred long before the start of the performance with “Dave Davidson”.
Without spoiling too much, Davidson is as much of a character, as fictional yet as significant, as those on stage – except his performance transcends the four walls of the Royal Court. Of course, there’s a real writer who, in a calculated moment of dada-esque brilliance, reveals his hand at the climax. When all the cards are laid bare, the true extent of the writer’s creativity cannot but be amazed; like a spider, they wove a narrative web and trapped the audience in it.
By mocking the public for placing their trust in the narrative, the play and the production, the royal court plays with the public’s ingrained sense of paranoia. As a play, it doesn’t mean to criticize the dangers of fake news, digital data collection and surveillance, but rather asks what we are doing to deal with it. In that sense, it’s a post-post-truth piece, revealing something fundamental about human nature and the power of storytelling. Only the theater could pull off such a maneuver. No other art form demands the kind of trust that It’s not who I am gets a.
There is no doubt that this kind of metatextual game will be confusing for some. But for those who speak the language of a generation cynically shaped by social media, facing anxieties about the future, climate change, housing crises, record mental health issues, socio-political divisions, wars cultural and inescapable general nihilism, his subversive casualness will cut hard, fast and deeply.
That is Not Who I Am plays at the Royal Court until July 16
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan