Is this the real life?

“It’s about how we strive for perfection. That’s always been with us, even before social media came along.” Director Cerys Evans is telling me about her new work, Lucy’s Pharmakon. Written by Jo Sutherland, this brand-new work dissects issues like female pleasure, mental health, dementia care and the impact of lockdown on relationships. Part dark comedy and part fairy tale, we meet a seemingly normal woman, who has found relief from her loveless marriage in the glittering allure of virtual reality. “The play is also about embracing imperfections, which is a more authentic and whole life to live; rather than always seeking the easy answers. If all our technology shutdown overnight, how would we build a better society together?”

While our protagonist’s time in this new digital playground initially seems idyllic, things become complicated when she starts preferring it to the outside world. What started out as a simple medical trial to address her depression has the side-effect of emotional connections slowly forming inside the environment. But it’s a place which algorithms have created especially for her. Lucy’s fantasy world has become the Pharmakon mentioned in the play’s title. This notion, offered originally by Jacques Derrida, has been increasingly used in philosophical arguments around technology. Something can be a cure, but it can also be the cause or something we blame.

Sutherland came across the term while at the University Of Sussex. “One of my modules was on philosophy and creative writing,” she tells me. “One of the examples which is used is snake venom. If you get bitten by a snake you might die, but the way you treat it is with the venom itself. I like that idea, and in the context of the play it works quite well.” It’s only a small step to see how this could be applied to our increasing reliance upon technology. The digital world dominates our lives now, but is it causing us harm, and does the solution lie with other technologies? 

The debut of Lucy’s Pharmakon is heading to The Actors on Brighton’s Prince’s Street, as part of this month’s FemFest – a festival which seeks to lift female, trans and non-binary voices. “I’ve worked with FemFest a few times,” says Evans. “Because it had a strong feminist message and character, I thought it worked well for that.” The pair met through another local organisation, Directors Cut. Supported by various sections of the industry, this club offers a professional development group for actors, writers and directors, with the intention of inspiring creative opportunities and relationships. “Jo later sent the script over and instantly I fell in love with it.” Sutherland says the bulk of the writing has been done since she met Cerys, so the play’s evolution has been a truly collaborative process. “It’s a great initiative, and proves the power of connection, which the play touches on,” she adds.

Perhaps genuine human contact is the vital element absent from our online world. Sutherland started Lucy’s Pharmakon intent on exploring the idea of disconnection, either that’s inside relationships, with ourselves or society itself. Then the pandemic happened, which completely redrew what we thought about isolation. “I could play that theme even more,” she says. “We had physical distance keeping us apart… People were struggling. There was communication through Teams or Zoom, which for people who were already disconnected from society, it brought that issue out even more.” A big part of everyone’s lockdown experience was an increased reliance on social media to facilitate interaction. But, perhaps, this is where a lot of things started unravelling in society.

We use social networks to meet new people, access news, share political views and find some form of entertainment. But, despite the now ubiquitous nature of these platforms, there are precious few studies into the long-term impact they are having on our behaviour and wellbeing. While they were undeniably a useful tool to have during those long socially-distanced days, what research there is suggests they are making many of us feel even more lonely and anxious. In response, Lucy’s Pharmakon is asking what would you choose – to feel loved and found in a virtual environment or lonely and lost in the real world? 

Social media has a tendency to reinforce use; shares and likes trigger the brain’s reward processes, and it’s tough to turn away from the instant feel-good thrill of being ephemerally popular with a large group of strangers. And that can become a core component of our identity and self-esteem, or even a type of coping mechanism. “You’re putting your ‘best life’ on show, when behind closed doors things probably aren’t as they seem,” Sutherland suggests. “There’s this constant striving to be beautiful, or whatever social media suggests that is. At that time, I was seeing my nieces grow-up, and they never looked good enough in their eyes. They’re always aspiring to this version of reality.” Her play encourages the audience to question their own interactions with technology. “We put a post up, and we feel more loved and special if someone ‘likes’ it. What is that? It’s a bit ‘nothing’. Are you living your best life with this?”

“I think it’s so relevant to where we are in society,” adds Evans. “There’s recently been a huge number of people, particularly women, who are in relationships with virtual reality partners. In some cases, they’ve even married them… In terms of mental health, there are a huge number of treatments which use virtual reality or AI. There’s a lot of therapy apps, which can be very useful, but they sometimes miss out on the human connection. I’ve used one, and it completely misunderstood what I said.”  

Even back in the 60s, scientists were toying with how artificial intelligence could interact with us. Joseph Weizenbaum created a program called ELIZA, which matched patterns to create the illusion of human communication. It appropriately responded to anything which was typed in, while never understanding any of it. What he’d created was a perfunctory chatbot. In a surprising turn of events, those testing it began telling the machine about their problems, falling under the illusion that it was both intelligent and seeking to help them. Despite its creator’s insistence that the program was merely reflecting the user’s own words back at them, many became convinced of ELIZA’s use as a new form of therapy.

In the last 20 years, technology has nimbly outpaced both analysis of its impact and the regulations seeking to moderate it. As with any new inventions, those developing them rarely anticipate the benefits or pitfalls ahead. Sutherland points out that if you look at a graph reporting people’s struggles with mental health, the numbers begin to soar at the point when social media started gaining popularity. It’s unlikely to be a coincidence. Can we truly trust anything we experience online?

“What’s scary now is the proliferation of tech, or rather the capabilities of it. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? The big thing now is deep fakes. Deep fake audio is pretty much there now, almost anyone could be fooled by it. Deep fake video is not quite perfect, but it won’t take long. If you juxtapose that against the mental health pandemic, which is essentially next, it becomes the ‘kill or cure’.”

While a mental health pandemic might not be talked about as much, it has the potential to be every bit as pernicious or disruptive as a Covid outbreak. But, perhaps the answer lies in better understanding and harnessing the technology around us. “What’s wonderful about the play, in the way Jo has written it, is it shows that in some ways using AI for mental health can be really beneficial for people,” Evans says. “On the other hand, it can be really detrimental. This play takes the stance that it’s in the hands of the person using it. Just like any other tool. We continue to be in an underfunded environment with mental health, and it’s only going to continue being underfunded unless we change things.”

Sutherland suggests technologies like AI are there to free us up for the important stuff. “There’s something to be said for the ‘gut-feel’. There’ll always be room for humans. What that looks like… who knows? In terms of mental health, I severely doubt AI is the answer. It could be used in some areas, where our health service is restricted. If you’re depressed, anxious or lonely, there is a lot to be said for contact with another living person.”

Evans reveals that every production hangs on the quality of writing. Sutherland has packed this work with wonderful humour, alongside things which should resonate with all of us. Like having a parent to care for, or a friend who is trying to be supportive, but doesn’t really know how to help. “I’ve been really privileged as a director to work with such a wonderful cast who are very talented,” she says. “I’ve always drawn inspiration from transforming the suppressed into the spectacular. It’s been wonderful to see how we can find a way to show the drawbacks of AI. What happens if we try to create perfection? Do we naturally create our own flaws and biases? Ultimately, it’s down to the joy and conflict, which comes from the script.”

Written by Jo Sutherland and directed by Cerys Evans, Lucy’s Pharmakon comes to The Actors (on Brighton’s Prince’s Street) on Thurs 7 March, as part of FemFest 2024. It then continues Thurs 4 – Sat 6 April. For more information, head to:

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