I am sitting in Pot Kettle Black in Manchester city centre. The cafe is full. We are all wearing wireless headphones and clutching smartphones which have been handed out a few minutes earlier. Strains of Norah Jones seep through the ambient cafe sounds and then we hear Terry’s voice through the headphones. I can’t at first locate where he is speaking from but then I spot him – perched on the windowsill at one end of the cafe, looking like just another cafe customer. He then begins to wander among us, people-watching and speculating (as we often do) about the lives of those he sees. He identifies me as a ‘Margaret’ …
It’s a gentle, warm and utterly immersive opening. Then our smart phones suddenly ping and the narrative begins.
Terry’s partner of nine years (Luca) left him six months ago. And now he is dead. As Terry is engulfed in a double dose of grief, he learns that, before walking out, Luca had named him ‘Online Legacy Executor’, with responsibility for managing the fate of his posthumous online presence. Given the complexity of Terry’s feelings at this point, this is a big ask – which he tries, unsuccessfully, to offload. However, these unexpected legal duties give him the opportunity to search for Luca through his social media accounts, to try to make sense of who he was – and who they were as a couple – and perhaps to exorcise the anger that has consumed him since Luca left.
Terry’s grief is played out through this search, and the emotional journey is every bit as complex as one might expect: numbness, fury, affection, confusion, bitterness, regret, warmth, overwhelming sadness, tenderness, guilt, love – they’re all there. And we don’t just eavesdrop on this process – we are totally immersed in it. Our smartphone screens scroll through Luca’s Facebook account and twitter feeds as Terry wanders amongst us, making eye contact and, at one point, weeping uncontrollably on the table just across from mine. It feels painfully intimate.
Yet it is also genuinely funny. Chris Goode’s sharp script is written with an extraordinary lightness of touch and is matched by a beautifully nuanced performance by Dante or Die’s Terry O’Donovan. He is ‘anybody’; he could be any one of us, going through that unique, devastating and yet commonplace experience of grief. It is has him eating muffins (because he’s ‘not the one who died’) and getting drunk and having a dream of Norah Jones and talking snails. The result is engaging and poignant without at any point being harrowing.
There are also, of course, really interesting issues raised around digital identity. The idea for the play arose from Caroline Twigg’s Guardian article following her husband’s death. She refers to the ‘blossoming industry’ of online companies offering services to assist us in planning for the future of our online content and it is clear that the matter of digital legacy adds a wholly new dimension to the experience of bereavement.
We are also challenged to consider the implications of our self-presentation on social media. Terry asks us directly whether we would wish, at the moment of our death, to delete or preserve all the ‘virtual fragments’ of ourselves. He notes that we might wish it to remain – “to say who we were” – but qualifies this with “…IF that’s who we were.” And it feels like this line gets to the heart of Terry’s struggle. He scours Luca’s social media both for traces of their love and for some understanding of his decision to leave – but how ‘true’ is the digital version of Luca anyway? And, crucially, is it one that Luca himself would want to preserve?
User Not Found is a play about grief in a digital age. I don’t know whether it is a strength or a weakness that, in the end, I’m not totally clear why Terry makes the decision he does. I’m genuinely unsure what I would have done in his place (or what I ‘will’ do – since perhaps we are all going to have to begin to think about this stuff). What I do know is that this is a beautiful, moving and memorable piece of theatre – written, performed and designed with depth and subtlety. There is only one thing I would take issue with – I don’t look at all like a ‘Margaret’.