Lainey O’Sullivan’s deceptively brisk and breezy new play tackles complex issues with intelligence and panache.
Conception is set in a near future that initially feels seductively familiar, but gradually reveals darker dystopian depths.
Anna (Lainey O’Sullivan) and Chris (Shaun Johnson) are a young and apparently comfortable couple living in a hi-tech apartment with a voice-activated AI system that responds to their every whim. However, they live in a world in which childbirth is strictly controlled by the state: contraceptive implants are mandatory; individuals have to be approved for fertility before having their birth-control devices removed and being matched with biological partners for artificial insemination; and the parties involved then become co-parents regardless of the relationship status of everyone involved.
Chris has signed up for the program – somewhat at the insistence of Anna, who wants their relationship to be ‘complete’ – and been approved and ‘matched’, after Anna herself was rejected for ‘character’ reasons that have to do with an incident in her past (there’s a subtle reference here to the issue of digital privacy). Despite these apparently minor complications, they seem to be eagerly awaiting the birth of their child, but things turn awry when their assigned co-parent Ruth (Asha Cornelia Cluer) makes an unexpected (and unauthorised) appearance at their apartment with the news that her pregnancy has miscarried. The authorities have not yet been notified, but both she and Chris now share the likelihood of failing to qualify again for future parenthood because of their medical history; Ruth also faces the prospect of returning to a life of socio-economic disadvantage and deprivation, from which co-parenthood was her only apparent means of escape. Anna suggests that they embark on an illicit attempt to try again, and that Chris and Ruth maximise their chances of success (and avoiding detection) by having intercourse repeatedly during Ruth’s next window of ovulation. After some initial reluctance both Chris and Ruth consent to the plan – with predictably chaotic emotional repercussions for all three.
Conception. Photography by Sophie Minissale.
Despite some holes in the plot and characterisation, the play succeeds primarily because of the engaging dialogue and performances, the pleasing mix of rom-com and dystopian drama, and the simple but effective staging (by Samuel Bruce) – including minimal set, furniture or props, and abstract but stylishly choreographed and performed movement sequences to suggest that Chris and Anna (or later Chris and Ruth) are having sex ‘offstage’.
However, the characters and their world remain sketchy, and ultimately despite the play’s carefully calibrated mood-swings from comedy to drama, it doesn’t quite deliver in terms of emotional or thematic impact. It’s never entirely clear why Anna is so controlling, or why Chris is such a push-over, except insofar as they personify abstract social forces or tendencies that the play is critiquing. Ruth’s personality and the crucial issue of her unequal socio-economic status seem likewise underdeveloped; and all three characters seem oddly prudish about sex and relationships (and are seemingly ignorant of the many forms of partnership and family that will presumably continue to flourish even in a state-controlled dystopia).
Conception. Photography by Sophie Minissale.
More broadly, apart from hints about water rationing and state surveillance, the dystopian world of the play lacked sufficient detail to make it real for me – in particular regarding the degree of eco-systemic collapse that had presumably occurred, or the broader political and social measures that had presumably been taken in response. Consequently, the theme of state-controlled fertility felt a little arbitrary. This is especially the case when most of the world is currently facing the opposite problem in terms of an ageing population and falling birth rates. Blaming overpopulation – rather than capitalism, injustice or armed conflict – as the prime cause of global food and water shortages, loss of biodiversity or climate change seems a little simplistic, even in the context of an imaginary dystopia. Then again, perhaps the play is ultimately more about parenthood, relationships and trust than it is about state surveillance, social control or global warming.
All that said, Conception is a highly entertaining and thought-provoking hour of theatre, and I look forward to seeing more work from this very talented writer-performer, as well as her equally talented fellow cast members and director.
Conception is on now at The Blue Room Theatre and runs to February 11.