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Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2007

  The Ethics of Progress / Presumption
Underbelly / Theatre Workshop, Edinburgh

Andrew Haydon
posted 28 August 2007

The publicity bumf for Unlimited Theatre’s The Ethics of Progress is unambiguous concerning what is on offer. The piece is an hour-long introduction to quantum physics, and a consideration of some of the ethical questions raised by the technological possibilities that this fledgling field of study may throw up. That said, this solo performance by Jon Spooner is about as likeable and energetic as you are likely to find on this year’s Fringe. The information is relayed in a jargon-free, readily comprehensible fashion, accompanied by some brilliant projected computer graphics.

We learn about how quantum physics deals with the smallest identifiable particles in existence, and how these basically behave in ways that do not conform to accepted Newtonian physics. This leads to the explanation of how teleportation is therefore theoretically possible, and always the subject of extensive research programmes across the globe. As Spooner genially comments, this stuff is pretty much mind-blowing. Spooner then goes on to consider what teleportation might mean for humanity. His basic premise is that progress cannot and is never stoppable. Once something has been invented, it can’t easily be forgotten, hidden or banned. He uses the wheel as an example. He looks at the positive and negative uses to which it has been put in its long history. Obviously the wheel is not a moral agent any more than putative teleportation devices, so Spooner is concerned with humanity’s seemingly endless capacity for violence, cruelty and exploitation. A sequence in which he imagines a genocide carried out using a teleportation device is particularly haunting.

Written by Spooner along with fellow Unlimited member Chris Thorpe in collaboration with Professor Vlatko Vedral who heads up the Quantum Information Group at the University of Leeds, this is a pleasingly authoritative, insightful piece of work, beautifully crafted and performed with a mixture of energy and charm in equal measure.

Also co-written by Unlimited member Chris Thorpe is Third Angel’s Presumption, appearing in Edinburgh after an extensive tour, under the auspices of the British Council Showcase. Presumption is a play about love. Not raging hormone, first-flush love, or the pain of separation or affairs, but the sort of love that exists within seven-year-old relationships in which there is less sex than there used to be, partners’ faults have been recognised and mulled over, and small things that irritate turn into snippy arguments which continue on and off for weeks. Hardly a radical subject matter and perhaps more ideally suited to soap and chick-lit, you might think. Third Angel, however, lift the piece from observation of commonplace humdrum tedium with a number of theatrical tricks.

Performers Lucy Ellinson and Chris Thorpe start the play on an empty stage and begin their first scene. They then break off, look at each other, and disappear into the wings to fetch the table and chairs which are required for the scene to continue. They sit and recommence the play. They get a bit further before realising that further props are missing. This device recurs throughout the play culminating in the hilarious assemblage of an entire bookcase shortly before the end.

This sense of accumulating stuff, combined with a painfully realistic depiction of a relationship in stasis, works well creating a far more layered and interesting piece of theatre than a simple relationship drama ever will. The switching in an out of character, the performance of performing, while a well known device, is nonetheless hugely engaging here. Both Thorpe and Ellinson are immensely watchable stage presences – both possessed of a rare quality of honesty and ‘realness’ – who properly engage with their audience.


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