Review: User Not Found (Traverse at Jeelie Piece Café, Edinburgh Fringe)
Site-specific company Dante or Die present Chris Goode's play about what happens to our digital presence when we die
As I left the Jeelie Piece café in the Edinburgh twilight, my phone pinged, asking me whether I would like to look at a Facebook album of my husband down the years. It was a spooky piece of serendipity because Chris Goode's play, made in association with the site-specific company Dante or Die, is all about the emotional role that digital media plays in our memories.
Inspired by a Guardian article in which Caroline Twigg discussed what she should do with her husband's digital legacy after his sudden death, it places us in the anonymous setting of a café to meet Terry, who sits in the corner, watching the world go by. But we meet him not only in the flesh – in the shape of the actor and co-deviser of the piece, Terry O'Donovan – but also through headphones, with which we have all been issued.
We are also given mobile telephones, and when Terry begins to be bombarded by a sequence of text messages asking him if he is OK, we receive them too. We become part of his story, parties to his dismay as he discovers that his former partner Luka – with whom he suffered a bitter break-up some seven months before – has died. What's more, amongst the bereavement messages pinging into our inboxes, there's one from a company called Fidelis Legacy Solutions informing Terry that Luka has nominated him as his digital executor. He has to choose whether to keep or delete Luka's online life.
It's a terrible dilemma, made all the more so by the fact that mingled with his grief, Terry feels intense anger about the breakup – and worries that now his erstwhile lover is dead he may never escape the rage he feels. Searching through his tweets and Facebook posts, he wonders obsessively about how the man he once loved felt about him, why he left, what he was like – and above all, whether this shadow of the man, his digital footprint, should be preserved.
The cleverness of the telling, directed with intimate care by Daphna Attias, the other co-deviser, is that Terry is close to us, his emotions raw as he moves around the tables, telling his story. But what we are watching is not him, but our phones, full of pictures of Luka but also images that represent Terry's dreams and imaginings. The human and the digital are so closely intertwined that when Terry sits at a table and cries with agony, the women sharing the table don't look at him, but at their electronic screens.
Around us, the production team turn the café into a hinterland between the real and the imagined. When Terry talks of his sense of falling through seas of endless code, blue lights come on beneath the tables, as he swims across the floor. When he describes a lioness who walks into the café, we hear her roar through our headphones. Only at the close, when he has made his decision and we take our headphones off, do we hear him speak to us directly.
It is moving and challenging, with Goode's script finding an elegiac poise. But what makes it so emotional is the rawness of O'Donovan's performance. He may say he is the most anonymous man in the room, but he makes his presence felt and makes his loneliness palpable.