Peace or oppression? What our vision of the future says about us

Culture Shock: ‘Futureproof’ shows how prescient it can be to imagine the worst

Blade Runner 2049: the sequel emerges as the world has just about caught up with the dark forecasts of the original, set in 2019

Blade Runner 2049: the sequel emerges as the world has just about caught up with the dark forecasts of the original, set in 2019

 

Lynda Radley’s play Futureproof, finally making its Irish premiere six years after its Scottish debut, begins with a man anxiously watching his figure. For an obese fellow his is a rare complaint: he is in imminent danger of losing weight. But for the ironically named Tiny this could jeopardise his livelihood. A mesmerising corpulence has made him a prime attraction at a travelling freak show. He can’t afford to be lesser.

“Don’t worry, you’re still fat,” he is assured by a bearded lady, a fellow performer in Robert Riley’s Odditorium. “Yes,” he replies. “But for how long?” The times, and public tastes, are changing, and as audiences for Riley’s Odditorium become leaner, so does the professional fat man.

Staged by the Everyman Theatre this week as part of Cork Midsummer Festival (it comes to Project Arts Centre, in Dublin, next week), Radley’s play is in some ways a parable about adaptability. If the audience, chastened by Darwinian theory and religious strictures, will no longer stump up for rarity, the ringleader diversifies the acts in pursuit of banal normality.

The fat man slims down, the bearded lady shaves, the hermaphrodite is encouraged to pick a side, and the conjoined twins consider going their separate ways

The fat man slims down, the bearded lady shaves, the hermaphrodite is encouraged to pick a side, and the conjoined twins consider going their separate ways. This, of course, becomes a kind of sly horror show, as one by one the team undergo an onstage conversion for the sake of fickle popularity. The marketing is adjusted to suit prevailing prejudices: “Even the most wanton amongst us have the power to change within.”

To watch this play at the same time as The Handmaid’s Tale, the current TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, is to feel the shivers of suppression, brutal and subtle, and dark capitulations to hyperconservative ideas. The TV series concentrates, more vividly than Atwood ever found necessary, on flashbacks of societal transition, of a familiar society first slipping, then plunging into tyranny. Atwood drew from real examples of the subjugation of women – too many to count – describing her novel not as sci-fi but as speculative fiction. What the show captures, with an uncanny timeliness, is the sense of a stunned public, cowed and outraged. How did nobody see this coming?

How we imagine the future, whether as a gleaming vision of peace and progress or as a paranoid wreck of oppression and resistance, generally says more about how we interpret our present.

Most of Bladerunner’s concerns still stand: catastrophic climate change, technological fetishism, a planet controlled by corporations, and a slippery sense of personal identity

In a pleasing game of temporal leapfrog, a new Blade Runner sequel emerges later this year, now that the world has just about caught up with the original movie’s dark forecasts: it was set in 2019. Most of that film’s concerns still stand: catastrophic climate change (oddly, the one thing Atwood’s Republic of Gilead has addressed), technological fetishism, a planet controlled by corporations, and a very slippery sense of personal identity. Before Blade Runner 2049 arrives you might wonder what more there is to add. In speculative fiction there seems to be prescience in preparing for the worst.

Yet future forecasting need not be such a gloomy business. Radley’s play has an archly attentive eye for the looming age of celebrity: Tiny, shrinking fast, becomes a kind of weight-loss guru, even if it is no guarantee of career longevity. Futureproof, moreover, is both wryly and cannily titled, applying an anachronistically contemporary term to the era of travelling shows.

The term has gained currency only in the past decade or so, as people have feared, with due cause, first for the obsolescence of their products and, soon after, for their careers. Will your expensive computer still be compatible with the next free operating system, and will that OS perform your job more cheaply than you can? To futureproof something is to avert a hazard, just as it is to flameproof or waterproof something. This, as any dramatic ironist knows, is only asking for trouble.

If Radley’s play is freighted with that knowledge it’s partly because the theatre is rich with antecedents – the dramas of those who saw the inevitable coming, and those who simply couldn’t respond – while the theatre itself survives only through continual adaptation. Chekhov is an obvious forebear; when Treplev, the artist in The Seagull, invites the theatre to show his audience what the world will be like two millenniums later, one heckler responds: “In 200,000 years there won’t be anything.”

The view from The Cherry Orchard is almost as rosy: “The future has neither a welcome nor even an accommodation for them,” a sympathetic Brian Friel wrote. That leaves both a feckless family and their unproductive orchard ripe for felling. It is, not without complication, “a comedy”: the trees never consider the axe.

Not everybody will survive radical change, but those with the best chances are the characters who confront it. They improve their own future

The lesson of Futureproof, like Chekhov’s, isn’t an entirely bleak assessment that the future cannot be outrun. Not everybody will survive radical change, but those with the best chances are the characters who confront it, break with tradition and shape their destiny. They improve their own future.

For all the crises of outmoded professions, myopic capitulations to trends, and the sepia tinge of bygone lives, it carries a usefully optimistic note. Your future might depend on how you look forward to it.

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