The development of East London includes one of the Fringe’s newest theatres, The Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick. Completed just over a year ago in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium and constructed from reclaimed materials within a dormant warehouse in an industrial yard, it is a totally apt setting for Game of Life, as it reflects the idea that a group of individuals with a similar goal can invigorate a malnourished community of artistic talent waiting in the urban wings.
It’s useful, but not essential, to know that the play is based on a 1970 mathematical model wherein there is an initial configuration of a grid of squares; black ones being ‘alive’ and white ones 'dead', and the simple rules of whether a dead cell comes to life or a live cell dies is determined by the number of adjacent live neighbours. The game self-perpetuates, and beautiful, complex patterns emerge after many iterations. This demonstrates the phenomenon of 'emergence' which leads to 'spontaneous order'. The theory makes interesting reading, but you don’t have to be remotely mathematical to understand it. Anyway, back to the play…
Game of Life was the brainchild of director Russell Bender, a Cambridge physics graduate. He collaborated with writer Rose Lewenstein, currently one of the Royal Court’s super-group, and together they created a story which links five people together whose co-dependency and relationships go to creating a rather innovative and magical piece of theatre. Theory aside, we associate with each character’s journey without having to over-analyse the consequences of their actions according to the rules; "It’s not just a game, it’s a world. I mean, it’s not just a world, it’s a game".
This paradoxical statement is the confusion for teenager, Isabel (Kate Mayne), whose irrational phobias prevent her from being able to make friends or relate to life without literal meaning. Humorously, she can’t understand why all her peers seem to talk about are clothes and sex when clearly you have to remove them for it! While she thrives on 'good vibes' and plays her Sim City virtual reality game, mother Caroline (Catherine Cusack) is an actual city planner and patiently handles her overly inquisitive daughter, only snapping when Isabel is unable to recall her recently deceased father’s appearance. Their hermit-like upstairs neighbour, Gregory (Richard Clews), who is a retired maths professor adhering to the Game of Life theory and working on 'a revolutionary bottom-up model for the railway network of Great Britain' following the death of a close friend on it, becomes a fascination for Isabel who only goes to enquire initially about the leak through his floor into her ceiling. At school, Isabel’s teacher Tom (Nicholas Karimi) sympathises with her condition, but has a task of demonstrating 'collective intelligence' by referencing ant and bee colonies. He was on anti-depressants, but is now engaged to Claire (Stephanie Thomas) and things are looking up for them. She’s stuck in her routine office job and isn’t averse to flirting via social networks, which Tom compares to fireflies. He argues over the necessity for a religious ceremony ignoring their underlying issues; "no one knows why we do anything"- it’s all just neurons firing thoughts at each other.
The opening scene was somewhat chaotic and confusing, mirroring the robotic nature of the daily grind, but once the individual characters developed it was thoroughly compelling to observe these interactions. Props shared between characters, a key word used by someone, picked up in a sentence moments later by another, all followed scene switches where the actors efficiently transported themselves and furniture around the ‘grid of squares’ set (well designed by Mila Sanders) in beautifully choreographed moves. The soundscape (designed by Edward Lewis) is extraordinarily fitting, affirming both the harshness and subtlety of being. Equally radiant was the lighting design by Michael Nabarro, who was clearly not daunted by the challenge of creating distinct areas which changed shape and size and position mirroring the random patterns resulting from emergence.
It’s a well-researched, cleverly constructed and superbly acted out piece. As an ensemble, rather like the theory behind it, they produce a relentless stream of activity, efficiently working towards their collective goal. Each inhabited their character with consummate authenticity, but I must single out Kate Mayne for a gripping performance managing to sustain such highly charged emotions as the challenging teen.
Although the play doesn’t purport to answer any major philosophical questions, it does leave you questioning a belief system. Do we really have free will? Do we understand our function or are we part of some great conundrum? On the journey home, I reflected on the beauty of nature’s mathematical patterns and the random events that trigger changes in our destiny. I realised that despite having experienced something quite meaningful, life is always going to be a game that you can’t win.