Friday 4th November 2022 at King’s Head Theatre, London
Reviewer: Jonathan Walfisz
Note: contains spoilers and discussion of sex-based trauma.
In the near future, Alice wakes up in the Lethe facility with a probe attached to her skull and no memory of how she got there. Though doctors and nurses come and go, they only spout health-care platitudes, giving Alice little comfort and no promise for escape.
It’s only when confronted with a video of herself, before the treatment, that she realises the rough contours of what’s happened. She signed up for this herself. Alice has had an implant surgically added that has removed three years of her memory. Evidently, something has gone very wrong in her life and she has no interest in remembering it.
After a while, Alice is released and she is picked up by her sister, Daphne, who she stays with as she slowly pieces together her new life. She gets a banal job and has ordinary encounters while navigating Daphne’s peculiar shyness and caution around dredging up past experiences.
But, whenever Alice veers even slightly near the edges of her past trauma, the implant removes the threat. People’s voices become muffled, edges of rooms become dark, and Alice is reminded that she is not free from the bounds of her past experiences, even if she can’t remember them directly.
Written by Noga Flaishon, Lethe’s plot has a lot in common with other sci-fi memory pieces. It wears its inspirations on its sleeves, from ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, ‘Black Mirror’ and ‘The Matrix’, even down to the references to following rabbit holes and ending the play with Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’.
Eternal Sunshine is probably the closest in plot similarity, with a lead struggling to deal with their own decision to remove a painful memory and desperate to find out why. Where Flaishon’s plot diverges from Charlie Kaufman’s idea is that while Jim Carrey is just trying to get over a bad break-up, something far more sinister happened to Alice.
Trauma is the real theme at the heart of Lethe. It’s a damning indictment of society that from such an early stage in the play, it’s very clear that this is a story about the trauma from some kind of sexual abuse. The story never elaborates too specifically on what happened to Alice, but it doesn’t need to. We all know why a woman might want to surgically remove the traumatic memories at play.
Instead, Flaishon focuses on the ways trauma restricts and punishes the victim. Alice, mercifully spared from having to remember the event directly, still must navigate a world that is closing in around her. Everywhere she goes, crowds, podcasts, and nightclubs present opportunities to revisit a trigger, and so her implant removes these things from view.
After a harrowing sexual scene where Alice dissociates, the shadow of her trauma gains definition. Lethe’s sci-fi tool is so effective in showing the devastating and life-changing impact of the way trauma depletes a victim’s freedom.
The role of Alice is capably handled by Sarah Cullum, but I sometimes felt the performance wasn’t given the full possibility to shine. While the play’s language is present tense, it often comes across like Alice’s long monologues are past events retold, removing the potential drama of a plot happening now.
Cullum’s performance comes far more alive when reacting to Eleanor Harper, who plays Daphne, as well as a host of other smaller roles. Harper spends much of her time on stage mechanically creeping around, a physical embodiment of the weight on Alice’s shoulders. When playing the sisters, both actors are vibrant and exciting to watch.
I also felt disappointed in how the play is structured like a mystery. As mentioned earlier, the cause of Alice’s trauma is obvious from early on, even if it isn’t to the character. It’s a horrifying reality, but that means the drama of slowly edging towards the truth is somewhat dampened.
My favourite element of Lethe is when it deconstructs the tricky job of navigating a trauma-free world while still encumbered with a traumatised brain. It would have been fascinating for the play to have continued past its finale of Alice ripping out the implant, to see someone weighing up the differences between remembering and not. Regardless of her memory, Alice is clearly living a life designed by trauma. Would she rather navigate that trauma with a memory of the event, or is the memory an extra pain not worth enduring?
Lethe plays the King’s Head Theatre, London until November 12th 2022 – you can find tickets here.
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