Act One Theatre, Becki Dack, Bex Landale, CRISPR-Cas9, Edinburgh Fringe, Genetic-Modification, GMO: Genetically Modified Organism, Human Genetic Modification, Jono Hibberd, Paradise in the Vault, Rob Maddison, Sarah Bulmer, Technology, Theatre Review
There are today no significant remaining obstacles to the production of genetically modified human beings. Indeed, laboratories around the world can now easily access the inexpensive gene editing technique CRISPR-Cas9. Tychy’s many subscribers will be well abreast of these developments, since in February I reviewed Paul Knoepfler’s book about CRISPR, GMO Sapiens: the Life-Changing Science of Designer Babies. Befitting an analysis which was distinguished by considerably more enthusiasm than expertise, my review roundly welcomed the new technology.
In a notorious poll which was conducted in the United States in 2014, 50% of the respondents judged that it was “inappropriate” to alter a baby’s genes, even to “reduce risk of a serious disease.” Act One Theatre’s “GMO: Genetically Modified Organism” effectively puts the same question to a Fringe audience. The play comes from Cardiff and it is written by Rob Maddison. As a foetus, Amelia Fowler (Celyn Morris) was saved from dying in the womb by an illegal CRISPR intervention. Her father was arrested and Amelia is, at the age of four, put on trial for being contraband. If she is found guilty, she will be executed à la lethal injection. We, the audience, are the jury and we have to decide whether or not Amelia is, as a genetically modified person, exempt from the Human Rights Act. Is she, alone amongst our citizens, eligible for the death penalty? Is she unprecedentedly defective as a human being?
It is all pretty easy and the audience at today’s show find Amelia “innocent” by a majority of 35 to 4. The 4 were presumably making mischief. “GMO” is so easy, in fact, that I began to doubt whether it was even sincere or authentic as a Moral Maze. The show increasingly resembles a Brass Eye style parody of the media coverage surrounding CRISPR. We are immersed in a topsy-turvy premise in which the conservatives for once want a child to be aborted, a whole four years too late, whilst the progressives are pro-life. This set piece moral dilemma is highly fanciful and, indeed, it verges upon the unintelligible.
The UK doesn’t have the death penalty; four-year-olds are never put on trial; you cannot be tried for a crime which was committed before you were born; you are normally tried for something that you have done rather than simply been; and these numerous WTF features of the proceedings would surely guarantee decades of appeals. Moreover, if it was illegal to be genetically modified, then the court would be able to resort to legal precedents. There are between thirty and fifty individuals alive today who were conceived using DNA from three parents.
So what is really going on here? Perhaps a clue lies in the theatre, for yes, we are back amongst the dank brickwork of Paradise in the Vault, one of the most Gothic of all available Fringe venues. Whilst the morality and ethics of “GMO” are all over the place, its aesthetic is firmly that of The Twilight Zone. The CRISPR controversy unfolds in a dream world or another dimension. Everybody on stage refers to Amelia as being mute, but the jury can hear her cries of protest. The judge or “barrister” (Becki Dack) who holds court is a diabolical presence whose metallic face and crazed dancing are also apparently visible only to the jury. It is as if, on a cosmic plane, the judge is embroiled in a bout of spiritual wrestling with the GM defendant. The moment when we are made suddenly aware of Amelia’s heterochromia is pulled off superbly, a little comma of sheer horror pausing the narrative.
Perhaps all of this expresses, or even lampoons, the sinister way in which the media conventionally represents CRISPR. The play’s nightmarish atmosphere finally culminates in the audience being required to deliberate upon whether a little girl should be put to death. If a single character has been altered in Amelia’s DNA, she is left resembling a Hester Prynne for the GM Age, blazoned with a Scarlet Letter.
So “GMO” adds up to some provocative but highly enjoyable theatre.