Science fiction in theatre: Callisto – a queer epic

Callisto – first performed in Edinburgh Fringe 2016, is now playing at London’s Arcola theatre until the 23rd of December.  This brilliant and imaginative play packs in so much humour alongside the tragic, the absurd, and the science-fictional, that it is simply unmissable!

Callisto-10.jpgLondon, 1680. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

The play consists of four love stories set in 1680, 1936, 1978-9, and 2223.  The stories talk to each, the text demanding their simultaneous presence on stage at several crucial moments in the play. These instances are key to some of the thematic threads that span the epic, knitting it together. Each viewer might perceive their own connections, beyond the obvious commonality that is part of the title: each story involves a love affair between people of the same sex. The complexity and the wit of the play are dazzling. There are stories within stories. In 1680s London, Arabella Hunt is an opera star, and we first encounter her rehearsing the lines from Cleopatra:


[…] and all the world,

is if it were the business of mankind to part us,

is armed against my love: even you yourself

join with the rest; you, you are armed against me

This sentiment echoes through time, the world is armed against homosexual love even when we are on the moon in 2223, albeit this time through its absence – Cal and Lorn are all that is left of homo sapiens, and only one of them is biologically human. Cal is an android that Lorn built, an android those very conscious existence depends on convincing Lorn that he loves him. With humanity having driven itself to extinction, Lorn is afraid of hope, and hence of love.

Callisto-12Lorn and Cal, Moon, 2223. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

In one of the clearest links between the stories, Cal represents a vision that Alan Turing has in 1936. This is how he describes it to Isobel Morcom, mother of Christopher – Alan’s lover who died seven years previously:

A certain death is, we have said too many times, regrettable – we would do anything to avoid it. So? So, the human mind – all I recognise as you in this conversation – operates on a basis that is rapidly becoming entirely computable. I could replicate your thought patterns and let them play out at light speed before your own eyes. You could catch your future self in conversation with a person you have yet to meet or a person you have lost.  The loss, the regret, could be avoided – is avoidable. QED

Callisto-4Alan Turing and Isobel Morcom, Worcester, 1936. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

Alan contemplates the visions of a future where the pain of losing someone you love can be avoided by replacing the beloved with a simulation. Isobel, who unlike Alan, believes in God disagrees that grief is a problem that should be approached with a techno-fix, according to her: Grief is a godly thing.

The story of Cal and Lorn illustrates this argument between Christopher and Isobel but does not resolve it. Technology has evolved to enable Lorn to build a simulacrum of his lost human lover Theo, but he is neither free of loss or regret.

Faith and religion are important in all four stories. Lola, in 1979, speaking to her girlfriend Tammy Frazer, gives the most compelling description of heaven that I have ever encountered.

Callisto-13Lola, San Fernando Valley, 1979. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

Other ways in which the stories relate to each other within the play involve language and performance. Protagonists in every story are artists in a sense that they build representations: Arabella, Lola, and Tammy are actresses, Lorn and Alan build machines that represent the real world, and Isobel is a sculptor.

From a representation perspective, the most challenging story is the future one. To convey the shift in culture, a whole new grammar is introduced. Hal Coase – the play writer – invents a new dialect of English. We discern from this language, its computer code inflected sparseness, the likely history of the future up to 2223. And yet, the minimalistic, impoverished vocabulary of a dystopian future is still effective at communicating feelings when animated by love – this is perhaps the most wonderful stylistic achievement of the play. Ironically, because the goal of this formalistic innovation is to assert the primacy of content (feelings) over form (language).

Callisto-3London, 1690. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli



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