If you have a chance to see Jenny Lee’s one-woman show, Heartbeats & Algorithms, I recommend that you should grab it. It got its start and won much praise at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2015 and recently has been successfully played in some other venues. It keeps deepening and improving with each outing. It is compelling both as a highly theatrical piece of thought-provoking writing and as a nuanced, complex and utterly compelling performance.
The narrator of the tale who engages with her audience and makes some of us become part of her on-line network is completely convincing. It seems to me that Jenny Lee inhabits this contemporary woman who has invented an algorithm that can predict one’s actions with amazing accuracy. Having made herself the subject of her own algorithm to test out its percentage of correct predictions, the character known as Banks to her on-line friends and ultimately to us as Lucy, is in the dilemma of knowing that this artificial Big Brother she has created is watching everything about her.
Part of the tension of the piece comes from her trying to outwit her creation and cheat on the predictions that the algorithm is making about her. Mary Shelley’s theme about the arrogance of scientists and the unpredictable damage they can unleash is certainly one theme that is echoed strongly in this play.
The writing of the piece is extremely assured and builds impressively to its tense climax. Some people have disliked the denouement that follows, but I personally found it not only apt but hopeful and not entirely predictable. Indeed, the actual ending comes as a relief compared to some of the finales I was worrying about it is leading to. While portraying modern technology as the instigator of a potentially Orwellian world if we are not careful, Lee’s text also has embedded in it a get-out clause that should have you debating it for days to come.
Her acting is completely riveting from start to finish, beautifully judged and completely controlled. She has an almost Chaplin-esque control over her gestures and body language, and she can do as much with the raising of her right eyebrow as Charlie Chaplin did with his cane and his jaunty walk away from the camera. Credit must be shared with director Velantina Ceschi, sound designer Iain Armstrong and lighting designer Alex Fernandes, no doubt; but this is very much Lee’s concept and her show. She is a very attractive woman and she portrays a very troubled but ultimately appealing and memorable character. She also engages the audience to participate in her world not just mentally but at times with contributions to the action as well. The intensity of her acting and the variety of the moods that she evoked in about 75 minutes made me wish I could see her as Beatrice in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing or Ibsen’s heroine in Hedda Gabler or some other classic role. She certainly has the presence of a strong, intelligent classic actress.
This is the kind of evening that restores your faith in the real value of contemporary theatre to entertain, enlighten and provoke relevant debate. It was a genuinely exciting evening. I saw the show in a small venue that was deservedly totally sold out. The audience was completely hooked throughout and gave Lee a well-deserved ovation at the end.