Sex and death – and the internet is a gift

Review: Sex and Death_ The Internet, directed by Samara Hirsch

My most recent experience as an audience one at an Adelaide Festival performance was the Belgian theater company Ontroerend Goed The Smile Off Your Face in 2013.

We were tied to a wheelchair, and taken from room to room blindfolded. When the mask was taken off, we were faced with a series of unexpected and sometimes harrowing encounters.

Unlike the grotesque Belgian work, which featured multiple artists, the confrontation in sex, death – and the internet is between you and someone else. It’s also much gentler – though no less powerful.

The “performers” here are simply the people themselves. The 17 seniors involved in the project are listed as “champions” in the program, with a desire to ask and answer some of life’s most sensitive questions.

The pre-show publicity was billed as an opportunity for candid conversations, and it prepares us for an encounter along the lines of Truth or Dare, You Can’t Ask That or a Catholic Confession.

Choosing to participate in such an encounter with oneself and with a stranger is in itself an act of self-choice.

Completely disarm

Designed and directed by Melbourne-based performance maker Samara Hirsch with lead artistic collaborators Bec Reid (theatrical) and Punch Hooks (photography), participants choose a time to engage with a senior. In the weeks leading up to the show, participants are asked to submit a photo of themselves taken at least ten years ago.

Participants are instructed on the location of the meeting and are asked to arrive no more than 15 minutes before the meeting time. Upon arrival, an attendant sits us down, supplies us with a headset and asks us to listen to a short audio file with our eyes closed.

Hear the children respond to a series of questions. Many of the answers are unexpected, even shocking to see, funny at times, and ultimately completely disarming. I find myself crying and the show hasn’t even started. Fortunately, there is a tissue box nearby.

A kind and gentle woman (I later came to know her as Hirsch) allows me to gather myself and leads me into a cramped, thickly curtained, dimly lit room. Dramatically lit, I sit at a small desk in front of a computer screen. Next to it is a sheet of paper. Some clear and simple verbal instructions are given.

The meeting takes place alone and through a screen.
Roy Vanderjet Festival / Adelaide

What will happen next is a face-to-face meeting with an old man in an undisclosed remote location.

Two years after contracting coronavirus, we are all used to talking to people on screens.

Set up as a game, where participants ask specific questions to each other. Four cards associated with questions appear on the screen, and both parties can shuffle the cards in search of another question if they don’t like it. Beneficiaries have the option of swiping any question their seniors ask.

We are told that “the truth” is “whatever it means to you today.” The process feels remarkably safe, ethical, and fair, and it’s a far cry from being confined to a wheelchair (keep in mind, I loved the experience – but that’s a story for another day).

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Beautiful and deeply touching

As this work is still a work in progress and it is likely that future iterations will follow a similar format, it would not be appropriate to re-ask any of the questions. The truth and the willingness to tell it comes from not knowing what comes next.

These questions unlock the depths of our dreams, goals, and values. They have the power to reveal everything we fear and cherish most.

As a new “elder”, I entered the experience with little doubt about what someone older than me could do for me. I was expecting something sweet, maybe cute, but not particularly touching.

My human mating in the very short Q and A was beautiful and deeply moving. What happened seemed like a kind of deep connection, a sharing of what is important in life, safely revealed under the conditions of ethics of care established by Hirsch and her team.

As for what happens to the photo, saying anything here would undermine the power of the last moments of the encounter.

Leaving the place, I walked up the stairs to the open courtyard of the University of Adelaide Union Building. It was 5.30pm on a Friday and the place was full of youth: vibrant, bustling and full of energy after two years of COVID restrictions.

Normally, when I walked into such a crowd I would feel old and lonely. Instead, I felt a connection to youth and age, even old age. And it felt good, it’s still with me.

In this respect, Sex, Death, and the Internet was not so much a performance event as a gift.

sex and death And it is shown online at Union House, University of Adelaide, for the Adelaide Festival through March 20.