It’s a widely shared, weary and readily repressed truism of any on-grid citizen: our screens have invaded our psyche.
And, by extension, our identities, relationships, behaviours and routines. The multi-billion-dollar industry of corporate online manipulation and addiction, and the impoverishment of meaningful exchange is TED Talk material (which we, ironically, watch via laptops, then share via social networks).
As workers, screens demand our attention, obliterating public/private boundaries. As consumers, they coddle us: satisfying instantaneously our desires, confirming our opinions, rewarding our egocentricities and eradicating inconveniences. Their permeation into the fabric of our everyday is complete.
Taking this modern-day concern as its central theme, You’re Not Special risks unoriginality. And while there are shades of the ‘wake up sheeple’ didactic, through the story’s deft and gradual unfolding under director Samantha Young, its authentic characters and an uncanny central device, it manages to make an original, bracing and engrossing theatre experience.
Excellent performances, particularly by Kate Skinner, ensure this cautionary tale doesn’t become overwrought.
Sam O’Sullivan’s play begins (or does it?) with a seemingly ordinary, if slightly awkward, exchange.
Two strangers cross paths in the park, walking their dogs. One is Dan (Arkia Ashraf), a work-from-home illustrator of children’s books. The other (Ariadne Sgouros) goes by the name April May. She’s both brazen and enigmatic. Underneath her arm is Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties – an uncanny book in which gothic fairytales and real-world horrors meet.
Dan has just moved into the neighbourhood with his partner, Ellie (Skinner). While she works increasingly high-pressure hours at her new job at an advertising firm, he works from his computer, often on the bed. He doesn’t even go out to walk the dog. That’s now the job of April, who asks for a key to the apartment, and gets it.
Dan is fascinated by this new character who has slid into his days. Where the strong-willed, fiercely intelligent Ellie won’t hesitate to challenge Dan’s problematic statements, and increasingly rubs raw his male fragility as the lower-earning partner, his relationship with April is something else entirely. She excites him. Intrigues him. She says he seems to know some ‘secret’. In everything she does, says (and doesn’t do or say) she tells him he’s special.
Increasingly, she appears before Dan as some sort of agent of truth, attuned to his primal self. She tells him about the Tetris Effect – that aching bliss that we feel when everything fits. He’s trapped, she tells him. (He knows.) He needs to take a chance, jump. (He knows this too.)
Is April May a seductress? A home-wrecker?
Who is this woman who glides in and out of his life? What hold does she have over him, and where does the power lie?
Meanwhile, though Ellie’s first ‘house rule’ was a screen ban in the bedroom, her all-demanding job has transformed her into a marionette to her phone. Its vibrations irrupt constantly. Even when the phone isn’t buzzing, there’s always the dread certainty that soon, it will. It intrudes into her sex life, and her ability to exist with just herself.
Amid the wretchedness, wry comedy jags. The dagginess of long-time partners (“are you proficient in Excel?” gets one of the biggest laughs of the night) and the despair, is played in brilliant equal measure by Ashraf and Skinner.
Flooding the darkness that falls in between the play’s short scenes, and amassing in sound designer Kaitlyn Crocker’s shudders and hums, a jittery sense of foreboding builds. Above the island of an IKEA bed, the central stage prop around which action plays out, cables spill like an underbelly exposed and ripped out.
The coup de grace falls late in the play, its delayed deployment perfectly timed. Ellie has found out about April May. She confronts him about it. Dan hates confrontation.
You’re Not Special presents the unsettling – if well-aired – proposition that human connection is at risk of disintegrating under the tyranny of our devices.
Dan, thinking he deserves a world in which everything is easy, becomes a diminished, petty and potentially dangerous individual. Rather than make compromises or show emotional vulnerability, he rejects Ellie’s real love, stops even trying to earn it, because doing so asks more of him than he thinks he should give.
Perhaps the most powerful element of the play is its commentary on male entitlement in the modern world – the increasing discord between the commercial forces that enable it, and the women who refuse to indulge it. This lands most powerfully in the play’s closing scene, which gives voice to a new character we haven’t even met.
As the applause died, my awareness turned to the phone that had been sitting on my lap the whole time, beneath my notebook.
The compulsion to check it was instinctual. That yearning twitch. I winced.
Eventually, of course, I looked. I had to. There was this Instagram story I had to share for my job. Essential. Important. Right?
This content is created with the support of City of Sydney