With live shows back in full force, it would be easy to forget the incredible strides that theatre has taken online in the past 18 months. Clearly, there really is nothing like being there in person, watching a performance that will send shivers down your spine. But with all the progress made in presenting theatre as an online offering, it would be criminal to totally ignore digital production now, especially when it is as well-crafted as The System.
Talking of criminal, that is exactly where we begin with The System, as we find ourselves in a police interrogation room following the murder of Paul. Through a series of interviews, it soon becomes apparent that Paul wasn’t that nice: in fact, you suspect he won’t be missed all that much by any of those suspected of his murder. As we flit between fragmented interviews, piece by piece a picture is painted; his alcoholism, his temper, his violence and worse towards those living under his roof. Until ultimately the truth is unveiled. A truth that I’ll humbly admit to having guessed about two-thirds of the way through the play, leaving the main problem of how to avoid spoilers! Suffice to say, the play does contain themes of abuse and mental health issues.
The System is a stylish piece of online theatre for many reasons. Emily Head, writer and sole performer, lives and breathes the characters she has created. Whilst early on the transitions between roles is softly handled, as the truth becomes more sinister so they become more ragged: at times we seemingly move from one to the next mid-sentence. It can occasionally be a little disconcerting trying to decipher who she is: a slight change of accent, different mannerisms, an adjustment of her sleeves all give clues. Even so, with at least half a dozen characters being interviewed, it takes some effort to keep up. But it’s all intentional, the story arc taking us where we need to be.
And whilst it may be billed as a one-woman performance, her co-star really is the steadicam and its operator, Ben Eeley. Filmed in one continuous take on the stage of New Wolsey Theatre, the camera at times is the interviewer, Head’s eyes on him as she responds to the questions we are left to imagine having been asked. It becomes a point-of-view, as if we are seeing through the investigator’s eyes looking down at Head as he stands, or watching her feet as she demands he look away. At other times the camera is a voyeur, peeking in as she checks herself in the mirror or fiddles with her hair. It’s made even more effective by David Woodhead’s set design. The simple interrogation room feels real even though we can see it is situated in the middle of the theatre’s stage. Bars give almost a prison feel, and as the camera moves around it feels fully enclosed. Yet somehow Eeley moves smoothly in and out of the room so we can watch from differing angles; it’s all rather clever and does leave you looking for the gaps in the walls at times, just to work out how it’s been done!
Having watched a lot of online theatre during the enforced lockdown, it’s been interesting to see the artform develop quickly, and to wonder where it will be taken next. The System successfully bridges the divide between theatre and TV drama. It’s a powerful offering, both in its writing and visuals, and one that certainly sets a standard for drama made for a digital audience.
Written by: Emily Head
Directed by: Guy Unsworth
Produced by: Alastair Whatley & Tom Hackney for The Original Theatre Company
Design by: David Woodhead
Lighting design by: Matt Haskins
Sound design by: Max Papperheim
The System is available to watch online until 5 December. Further information and booking via the below link.