Inhabitance review: Like a bleak pitch for the next season of the human race

Glass Doll’s new show asks what effect does reality TV have on real life


Project Arts Centre, Dublin


Life doesn't imitate art, Woody Allen said; it imitates bad television. The premise of Peter Dunne's new play for Glass Doll suggests something similar, wondering what effect mass entertainment has on public ethics, or, to put it another way, what does Reality TV do to reality?


A young girl has gone missing, and her mother, Patricia (Fíonna Hewitt-Twamley), mired in poverty and alcoholism, turns to a new TV show to rekindle public interest in the case. A strange cross between a Crimeline reconstruction and a series of Big Brother, this show will recreate the missing Lucy's last days by embedding an actor among her real family members. "It's not a witch hunt," defends its director Tim (Charlie Bonner), "We're relaunching empathy." Next, they'll want to disrupt relatability.

This, of course, works like a bleak pitch for the next season of the human race, and Dunne's apocalyptic vision wears its debts proudly to everything from the unsettling extrapolations of Philip Ridley's plays, to the sardonic prophecies of Black Mirror and, above all, the fever dream of Network. As in that movie, we get two television execs, the suavely cynical Tim and the robotic producer type, Leigh (Michele McMahon), debating the purpose of their show from no fixed position.

The main difference, and the only theatrical conceit, is in the substitute Lucy, Cass (nicely performed by Amilia Stewart), who inhabits her character so profoundly she loses any sense of self. Here, director Ronan Phelan finds some satisfying traction in Patricia's deep distrust and emotional unravelling, as though harbouring a changeling.

Cass, it turns out, successfully reboots the Lucy franchise, a vast improvement on the original. Zia Holly’s set, whose scaffold recalls a gallows as much as a studio, includes a twitter-style commentary on TV monitors, where the viewing public goes from a snarking mob to a gush of #inspired by way of her performance. (#sofickle)

Led more by concept than story, though, the play opens up more avenues than it chooses to pursue (the public, for instance, will legally decide the guilt of any perpetrator, a neatly dystopian idea that is left merely to dangle). Similarly, its scenes routinely fracture into individual monologues of moral schlerosis, as though dialogue alone can’t convey its ideas. Some of this is dense enough to chew over, but, like Denis Clohessy’s pulsing electronic score, it feels curiously dated, like a vision of the future from 20 years ago.

The consequence of reality entertainment on human empathy in the age of Serial and Making a Murderer is not public apathy, but overinvestment: if Lucy's show really had 50m viewers (where?) the mystery would be picked apart forensically on Reddit. Then again, stranger things have happened. A reality TV star with considerably lower ratings and still less empathy than Lucy could be the next president of the US.

Until May 14

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about theatre, television and other aspects of culture