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Online Arts Editor Helena Raymond-Hayling ponders the potential and risks of Synthetic Biology courtesy of Kilter Theatre’s production of Invincible.

In 2014, the University of Bristol’s Public Engagement team approached Kilter Theatre with funding from the EU to open up the new field of synthetic biology to public scrutiny and debate. Meeting with scientists, bio-ethicists and philosophers, the creative team at Kilter formed a piece of theatre which both informs and promotes dialogue.

‘nature’ is able to be reconfigured

Synthetic Biology is a rapidly developing area of research, and scientists are now able to gain unprecedented control in programming new biological functions by rewriting the genetic code. Whilst this has the potential to help solve major challenges such as health and sustainability, ‘nature’ is able to be reconfigured, raising some serious ethical questions as to our role in tampering with the natural world in this potentially unpredictable way.

I am sent a location in a slightly puzzling email, which appears to be a residential address. Upon arriving, I realise that the performance takes place inside a basement flat; no stage, no lighting, no radical set design – just a flat. I am greeted by a woman in a lab coat, who ushers me to stand in the hallway, squeezed between about fifteen others – all just as mystified as I.

Some gentle, hypnotic electronic music is playing and the audience is hushed. I am handed a card with a smiley face on one side, and a sad face on the other by one of the three lab coated co-ordinators, who stand taciturn and expressionless.

Through the sound system, a young child narrates this odd scene. The voice asks us to trust the scientists, because they have our best interests at heart – surely. We are asked to vote via the cards on whether they think it is acceptable to mix the DNA of a goat with a spider to make new strong materials for use in medicine.

‘human life has been held back’

I am rather haunted by the voice – a child discussing complex issues which raise uncomfortable ethical questions makes me somewhat uneasy; the innocence highlighting the discomfort surrounding this new science.

We are led into the kitchen, where we are directed to sit in different places by the mute scientists. Jasmine, played by Grace Courtney and her mother Kate, played by Alice Barclay are in the kitchen, still and silent, whilst the whistling kettle boils frantically. When we are all seated, Kate unintentionally drops a saucepan on the floor, the clatter abruptly cutting through the stiff silence.

It is clear that this is not a happy family. Mental health is a serious concern and as Kate describes to her own past struggles it is evident that her erratic behaviour has seriously affected her relationship with Jasmine. It quickly transpires that this play is set in 2041, where research has developed such that synthetic biology treatments are widely commercially available.

Invincible is a fictional implant developed by Jasmine’s grandmother Lillian, played by Meg Whelan, which automatically responds to imbalances in hormones that give rise to low mood and depression. Lillian fears that Jasmine’s mental health is at risk of deteriorating as hers and Kate’s has done in the past, and so encouraged Jasmine to undergo the treatment four years previously, when Jasmine was only 12 .

Lillian is a firm believer in her field, recalling how SynBio has eradicated some diseases and maximised food production. She bashes Kate, claiming she refuses to emerge from the ‘dark ages’, instead believing in the ‘spirit of nature’ and the ‘soul’.

Does God ever plan experiments?

Lillian asserts that ‘human life has been held back’ and has had the implant herself. Invincible has taken care of her mental health by ‘automatically fix[ing] the problem’, whereas Kate occupies herself by practicing mindfulness and yoga, taking walks and prioritising self-care. She is uncomfortable with Invincible being a soft option for confronting mental health, declaring ‘I feel alive and not numbed’.

A lot of shots are fired in both directions. During her journalism career, Kate has set out to ‘raise debate’ over the matter, calling Lillian’s work ‘propaganda’ and patronises Jasmine by saying she too ‘wanted to be counter-cultural’ at her age. Jasmine begins to doubt Invincible, and confesses, ‘I don’t know how much of the treatment is me’. She leaves, withdrawing to her room to leave her mother and grandmother bickering.

‘Is this what a life should be?’

The show then continues with the scientists moving us into Jasmine’s bedroom and later the living room, each scene is delimited by the return of the child’s voice asking a pertinent ethical question: Does SynBio sound natural? Is it right to intervene in the wild? Does God ever plan experiments? The questions are followed by an audience vote on the point raised.

Jasmine soon realises that Invincible has made her just that – invincible. She recounts feeling no sadness when a friend of hers confided in her over an agonising break-up, and questions whether she can really claim responsibility for her own accomplishments. Troubled, Jasmine admits she feels like ‘a half person’, and cannot remember ‘feeling like [she] can’t do anything’, frantically asking her mother: ‘has it changed me?’ and ‘is this what a life should be?’

The use of the space and the nuanced manipulation of props is artful and slick. As Kate is trying to console a hurt Jasmine, she compassionately straightens her bedcovers and picks up socks from her floor, as a mother would. Lillian makes a cup of tea which she forgets about in the heat of the argument, and Kate aggressively folds laundry when she and Lillian begin to clash.

this unique production [has] an intimately voyeuristic dimension

Combined with the lack of a boundary between cast and audience, the performance is gripping and distinctly different from other interactive pieces. As the characters move around the space, they sit and walk between the audience members, as though we aren’t here at all.

The audience are at the heart of the theatre

These subtleties embellish this unique production with an intimately voyeuristic dimension, and consequently the same surges in adrenaline are induced in me as between the altercating family. The acting is impeccable, the three women convey the tension so well that it permeates through the audience, and we shrink back, uncomfortable to be at point-blank range of such a deeply painful row.

As conflict gets increasingly heated, it transpires Jasmine’s anti-SynBio boyfriend has split up with her upon learning she has Invincible. Jasmine strains to cry, rubbing her hands over her eyes before exclaiming ‘I am crying, aren’t I?’

Jasmine struggles to cry

The performance ends with a discussion with the cast and the real synthetic biologist who is on set ready to answer questions, and a slideshow of photographs taken of the audience during each sad face / happy face vote. The debate runs over the end time, and no real conclusion on synthetic biology ultimately emerges – signifying how conflicting technologies like the fictitious Invincible can be.

I leave utterly thrown, educated and inspired by the future of science. That is not to say that I am not sceptical—after all, who would benefit from humanity becoming truly invincible?

What did you think of Invincible? Let us know in the comments below or on social media

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