Kafka looms in hopeless phone call

Elsa Couvreur in The Sensemaker. Photo: supplied
Elsa Couvreur in The Sensemaker. Photo: supplied

The Sensemaker
New Atheneum Theatre
Thursday, March 23

The sensemaker is a young woman on the phone and being watched by a camera.

She has a request of some kind - her clothing and initial air of fragile confidence suggest that she’s applying for a job.

For much of the time she’s on hold, and for much of that time the music is Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, out of which all the joy is very quickly squeezed. Her facial expressions and body language tell us how she’s feeling as she waits for the interaction to begin.

Interaction with the presumably artificial intelligence at the other end consists of non-negotiable instructions which the sensemaker must follow to the letter, accepting all conditions and affirming that she is not a robot. At first the instructions seem merely stupid and nonsensical, but as matters progress they become humiliating and dehumanising.

Everyone who has had an online or phone experience that goes on and on, and yet nowhere (and that has to be all of us) will know about utter helplessness and frustration turning to fury. The sensemaker’s goal, whatever it is, is so important to her that she dare not give up.

The play comes to Dunedin from Geneva, Switzerland, and is presented by Elsa Couvreur. It’s physical theatre, and Couvreur relies on movement to convey the sensemaker’s responses to the phone’s insistent and non-negotiable demands. She dances, she touches her toes; her body does what is required while her face conveys her progress from initial hopefulness to loathing and disgust for a system that has brought her to this.

You could see The Sensemaker as a dark comedy for our time, an expression of the dread people feel when faced with the prospect of any sort of electronic contact with authority, or a warning about the future. Whatever the case, the spirit of Kafka lives on.