Review by Lucy Lucas
Released throughout the early 2000s, The Sims is a life simulation model video game that remains one of the best-selling games of all time. I must admit up front I have never played The Sims and despite having many friends infatuated with it throughout my childhood, I remain completely un-enlightened to its offerings. I barely considered that I might need to have played The Sims to enjoy or even understand this production (assuming prior that it might be taking inspiration from an amalgamation of simulation type games rather than being built on a single one) but as we take our seats on opening night, I begin to realise how deeply based in The Sims videogame this story will be.
Theatreworks’ huge performance space has been utilised in its entirety by a truly incredible set which my companion whispers to me ‘looks exactly like The Sims house’. As we wait for the performance to begin, we watch three worker Sims move furniture and interact with one another. I slowly realise these workers are the invisible mechanisms of the computer, replicating the movements of the controller’s mouse and invisible to The Sim characters who inhabit this world.
In MOTHERLOD_^E the world of The Sims has been centred, with our world (the world of the game controller) merely a huge projected screen on the back wall. Our view as the audience, mimics that of the PC screen itself. We are both a part of The Sims world and voyeurs to the life and activities of the controller.
Even without having ever played The Sims I can appreciate the superb accuracy and attention to detail in the performance and design of MOTHERLOD_^E. The movement and voice work of the live actors playing Sims has clearly been developed with great care (and most likely love for) the original/early iterations of the game. There are no weak links in this cast in terms of commitment and specificity. Each of them gives focused and beautifully timed performances that combine for a seamless replication of such a distinct world.
Whilst I did research The Sims post-show to compare, I really needn’t have as the regular whispers and gasps from evidently fanatical Sims players around me in the audience spoke to the meticulous and precise visual design work done by Millie Levakis-Lucas, Sidney Younger and their team. I heard enough whispered versions of ‘that’s so accurate’ and ‘yes, that’s what they did oh my god!’ to feel deeply impressed by the work the creative team has done. On a visual and aural level the play is spectacular, a feast for the senses and produced to a quality that makes you double-check that this is a relatively small independent theatre company.
The plot of MOTHERLOD_^E follows a human character, via the projected screen, from school-age to early thirties. I am unsure if it is by design or simply an audio issue, but we can barely hear the words spoken by the teenage actors and therefore know almost nothing about the central character besides what we take in visually. Her early Sim experiments are harmless explorations of the potential of a consequences free world, and act primarily as a vessel for the Sim actors to explore a delicious array of physical comedy opportunities. However, when she returns to her fantasy world as an adult her odysseys take a turn for the cynical and occasionally the macabre. Jorja Bentley’s ability to convey much despite being a head and shoulders on a screen is particularly admirable in these later scenes.
Whilst I understand the decision to invert the ‘real’ and ‘simulated’ worlds, in terms of switching our perspective, we simply do not see enough of the player’s world to understand the context behind her choices playing out before us. On the one hand the controller’s contrasting experiences of heterosexual and queer Sim relationships beautifully communicates the way many queer young people have explored their own yearnings through simulation and safe online spaces. On the other hand the controller’s own relationship struggles are confusingly told and ultimately lost due to being projected so small (as instant-messenger boxes) that I cannot read all of them. This choice results in such an extreme disconnection from the narrative and humanity of the ‘real’ character on the screen that the theoretically excellent idea of exploring our psyche through our simulated projections is somewhat lost in translation. If the work is given support to be developed further (and it definitely should be) this gap could hopefully be breached – perhaps there is voiceover, or we see more of this character’s life playing out on screen so we can relate her choices in-game back to wider events.
Because of this disconnect there were several ideas or avenues that felt unexplored, or I felt could have been more explicitly or deeply engaged with. Considering The Sims was in part originally designed to satirise American consumer culture, there seemed to be very little exploration of the bleakness inherent in a world where we must play act wealthy and care-free living because those things have become so out of reach for the middle- and working-class masses. The darkness in our protagonist remained specific and personal, focusing on a single relationship, rather than expanding outwards. There are definitely instances of brilliance throughout the implosion of the characters/Sim’s world; autonomy over bodily functions and grief are amongst the ripest of the topics explored. Overall, it’s an exhilarating and wild ride that could be made even more impactful with some fine tuning around narrative and structure.
As a piece of early video game nostalgia and physical comedy MOTHERLOD_^E is faultless. As a darker reflection of our relationship with life and purpose is has clear intentions and makes valiant forays into the area but flounders slightly in the execution of its larger themes. However, MOTHERLOD_^E certainly fulfills Frenzy Theatre Co’s focus on the ‘intersection of pop culture and physical theatre’ and remains a brave and striking venture into territory that is yet to be deeply mined by mainstream theatre.