Theatre

The idea that changing the past could fix the future gets a glitchy video-meets-theatre treatment at The Old Fitz. By Jason Blake.

HYPERDREAM

A scene from HYPERDREAM.
Credit: David Charles Collins

Things have become quite toney at the recently renovated and reopened Old Fitzroy Hotel in Woolloomooloo, with a kitchen under head chef Anna Ugarte-Carral, formerly of Noma and Momofuku Seiōbo.

But downstairs, in the pub’s now venerable 60-seat cellar theatre, the vibe is as idiosyncratic as ever. Under the venue’s newly appointed, diversely talented triumvirate of artistic directors – Catherine Văn-Davies, Constantine Costi and Alexander Berlage – one imagines it will stay that way.

The Old Fitz’s current show is HYPERDREAM. From the minds of writers Adriane Daff and Mikala Westall and produced by the Perth-based theatre collective The Last Great Hunt, it is a deliberately glitchy live video-meets-theatre exercise playfully exploring the not entirely original idea that some day, in some way, we will have the ability to intervene in the processes of memory.

In this case, we might also offload some of that blush-inducing baggage we all tote around. The embarrassing job interview. The hopeless audition. The flubbed declaration of love. The crushing social gaffe. Thanks to HYPERDREAM, crippling recollections of shameful moments like these can be tweaked into the kinds of painstakingly realistic, self-worth-boosting memories you’ll love to revisit. All you have to do is hand over your credit card and the HYPERDREAM team will take care of the rest.

Such is the “hype” component of HYPERDREAM. In practice, things are more complex and potentially disturbing. Even dangerous.

A bubbly, faux-vintage electronic soundtrack (produced by Julian Starr, whose contribution to this piece is significant) immerses us in the world of the HYPERDREAM operation. At first, it seems like a fairly conventional workplace. The team, dressed in shapeless grey sweats and bum bags, slide into their workstations. Banalities are exchanged, the efficacy of a stress ball considered, a lost password is puzzled over.

Then in five, four, three, two, one… they are in a client’s head, manipulating his memory, enhancing details, adjusting the temperature, boosting the scent of instant coffee, adding a whiff of foot odour, and doing everything they can to help turn that regretful frown upside down. The vibe is upbeat, a bit high-fivey.

A sideways shift and we meet the client they’re working on, the crestfallen Gideon. He’s obsessing over a work opportunity that passed him by. But in five, four, three, two, one… Gideon is a changed man. “Want the job? I am the job!” he assures his idealised memory boss. “I’m new and improved, a whole different person!”

What better way to underscore the win than with a blast of the Bucks Fizz classic Making Your Mind Up? Another satisfied customer.

More examples follow. A man haunted by the memory of a once-adored and later discarded doll. Lovers feeling their way towards a declaration. An audition by an actor who got so nervous she threw up.

HYPERDREAM’s business model is sound. The demand is clearly there. But are its manipulations of memory really helping anyone? And from an employment point of view, is all this focus on the minds of other people messing with the heads of HYPERDREAM’s staff?

Some are developing the notion that HYPERDREAM is getting too big for its boot drive, that the program is developing a mind of its own. And if that is the case, what are they going to do about it?

The Old Fitz stage is reconfigured into a makeshift live TV studio. Daff and fellow performer-devisers – Matt Abell-King, Nat Jobe and Angela Mahlatjie – act scenes while simultaneously shooting them, in close-up, with small cameras. They provide their own lighting.

Green screens are used with old-school FX mixed in on the fly. What is usually the theatre’s vomitorium-cum-emergency exit is now the silvery set for a sci-fi movie helmed by a flamboyant bully of a director (played to the hilt by Abell-King).

Everything in HYPERDREAM is experienced in duplicate, coming at you live on stage and from the big screen suspended at its centre. Odd angles and reflections are cleverly used in the camera shots and what you see on-screen is fractionally out-of-sync soundwise with what you are hearing in the room – which may be deliberate, or just an unavoidable side effect of the technology being used. Either way, the effect is enjoyably discombobulating.

HYPERDREAM bears many of the hallmarks of earlier shows produced by The Last Great Hunt, whose members have probed the interface between screen and live action for the past decade. There is a memory of Tim Watts’ wonderful hand puppet and projection-based story The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer, for example. Or the ambitious shadowplay of It’s Dark Outside, the Alzheimer’s-inspired work that brought the company to the Sydney Festival in 2013.

Last year, with the nation’s theatres all dark, the company live streamed its Bad Baby Jean, a stirring “cardboard western noir” made with paper silhouettes and live-action sequences. It was the best of the live-stream experiments in the lockdown and a welcome glimpse of light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.

And HYPERDREAM, too, is an appealing piece of theatre – visually busy, inventive, often funny and rewarding of close attention. Its performers turn on a proverbial dime as they switch between playing the low-talking operators and the heightened characters of the hyperdreams (Jobe even gets to play the body double of one of his characters). All are adept at making the text seem off the cuff. Often, exchanges sound at least semi-improvised, if not wholly made up on the spot.

The dominant tone is comic, the humour millennial. The focus is sharper on interpersonal chafing and First World anxieties than it is on the ethics of this kind of brainwashing. None of the HYPERDREAM clients we encounter has memory baggage you could describe as truly heavy, and the big-picture stuff is left to the viewer to ponder in the aftermath. In doing so, you might conclude that similar territory was more resonantly explored in Michel Gondry’s 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

HYPERDREAM amuses consistently in its 75 minutes. But it doesn’t do much more than that. In fact, it’s not easy to recall a particularly memorable moment in a show so busily insubstantial.

HYPERDREAM plays at The Old Fitz Theatre, Sydney, until June 5.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 29, 2021 as "Millenial dreams and nightmares".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Jason Blake is a writer and theatre critic.