Given my fairly laughable mathematical ability, it was unlikely that I would ever be welcomed into the lush architectural wonder that is the Mathematical Institute. But now, thanks to Ronin Theatre Production’s latest project, Landscape with Weapon, my chance has come!
Ronin Theatre Production’s remit is simple: they will only put on shows written in the last 30 years. This means that their productions are always contemporary, relevant parables for today’s pressing issues. Landscape with Weapon is no exception. It’s a modern military morality tale. Without a twist. Ethics doesn’t do twists.
Written by British-born but Australian raised Joe Penhall in 2007 (he also wrote Mindhunter, available on Netflix) this play seems to foretell the current politico-military climate of Google-letting-themselves-be-exploited-by-the-government debacle. Google’s AI systems are being used by the US’s Project Maven to analyse data gathered by drones. Google internal staff are outraged and internal debate is rife. I’m paraphrasing, but the DOD’s Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Function Team chief said, 'Soon computers will be able to kill three times as many people as just people can.' All this plays out on stage but from the other perspective - that of the unwitting weapons manufacturer who isn’t *technically responsible* for how the weapons are used.
The stage, incidentally, was in the canteen basement (but with an airy atrium so the light and acoustics were superb) and like any good morality tale opened with a man (Ned, played by Alistair Nunn) in his boxers, not quite ready to address his moral quandary.
Inspired by murmurations (see the poster - it’s sublime) he designs a superior version of drones (the blueprints are on the table - it’s a nice touch) that don’t require GPS and lead to fewer of the wrong people being killed in warfare. This is the gist of how he tries to convince his brother Dan (who dabbles in Botox - not on himself, but on others) who is suitably horrified that his brother is essentially an arms dealer: 'You’re making weapons of mass destruction!'
As it sinks in, Ned tries to formulate justifications that would make the NRA proud. He speaks of how the death toll ends up being lower if weaponised drones, with all his precision technology, are used correctly. The result is him sounding pretty brainwashed but notably, he identifies with Leonardo Da Vinci on numerous occasions - no doubt appealing to the artist/visionary aspect he sees in himself and not so much the Adnan Khashoggi side of himself that was playing out before our eyes. Interesting aside, Adnan Khashoggi was an arms dealer that ran out of money (I find this hilarious for some reason) and while this was happening, sold a yacht to Donald Trump.
Dan, the brother, (played by Phillip Cotterill) does not let him off the hook so easily. It’s hard to when you’re appalled by your siblings’ behaviour. They play a very convincing brotherly pair complete with a rough and tumble that I felt in my own knees when they toppled to the floor. When Ned starts stammering how Kalashnikov didn’t realise what he was unleashing on the world, Dan is dubious and curt: 'Yes, he did. It was a gun.' Ned unravels while he deals with the moral responsibility of what has been foisted upon him. But has it?
The moral responsibility of scientists is a familiar adage and the history of scientific discoveries is littered with such examples. This is just too reminiscent of the wording of Alfred Nobel’s premature obituary (ouch) which described him as a man 'who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.' His supposed horror at how his inventing dynamite (just to speed up construction work, honest) was perceived prompted him to invent the Nobel Prize for scientists who 'done good'. Then Oppenheimer with his 'whoops' moment when there was no way of knowing if their nuclear weapon testing would actually cause Earth to cease to exist. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t.)
The flipside of this is Alexander Fleming with his paper saying, hey everyone - so this is mould. And then ten years later, the revised edition saying, oh yeah so this is vaccination and now I’ve basically changed the face of medicine forever. Everyone wants to reinvent themselves as Alexander Fleming in these cases. Fortunately for most of us, we just suffer the human face of weaponry advancement and don’t have to get into the thorny ethical dilemmas. Dan tries to hammer this point home as he explains how heart-wrenching it is to have to do full face reconstructive surgery on teenage soldiers and fit them for false teeth.
If you search through your memory bank, you’ll find instances where you’ve been put in a similar position. I was jolted by a memory during the production of similar guilt for when I lived in an army town and applied for a job that would have comprised hoovering Apache helicopters. Yes, yes the ones used to kill people. Interesting aside - I didn’t get the job because you need to be able to wink with both eyes to join the army and I couldn’t. Phew, moral responsibility shirked thanks to my faulty winking mechanism.
The second half introduces Brooks (played by Ashley Hunt - the other half of Ronin Productions) who is menacing and he tries to manipulate Ned into selling the weapons to the Americans. At this point, in case it wasn’t already clear, Ned is in way too deep.
Previous productions of this show have criticised the naivety of Ned. This was effectively downplayed here. It’s true; academics sometimes get so caught up in their world and their pet projects that they really can’t function with the normal healthy scepticism of a normal healthy human. Oppenheimer didn’t ever read a newspaper and had to be told about the Wall Street Crash 6 months after it happened. This is how geniuses are so I think the naivety is justified.
This is a great way to temperature-check where you are on the morality radar of arms dealing and weapons of mass destruction. This is useful in any day and age but particularly so today. Bite the bullet and see this well executed production.