What happens when you take two professional actors who have never met, and film them having a conversation, live and unscripted? This is an interesting enough experiment to explore, but in Do You Love Me Yet?, as the title would suggest, there's an extra element of intrigue - while the performers' answers are genuine, the conversation is rigorously directed, since they are responding to questions designed to accelerate intimacy among strangers. The result is an arresting, absorbing and thought-provoking hour of experimental theatre.
The piece is streamed live on Youtube but recorded on a video call platform (possibly Zoom), in itself an interesting interpretation of intimacy - in a way it could never be a faithful reproduction of the special atmosphere of the Burton Taylor Studio, and in a way it accurately captures the intense feel of being so close to the actors, particularly because, via the screens, we at least see them at closer quarters than we would in a physical audience.
It's a strangely artificial experience for a number of reasons. The actors have been briefed to be honest, present and brave, so we get a real insight into their lives. Yet simultaneously it is still a performance. We as the audience may be considered something of a 'control group' in the experiment, because we are not told the questions the actors answer (we can deduce that one question appears at a time on their screens as we see the actors' responses first in their facial expressions). The performers also take it in turns to answer the questions, rather than having the chance to respond to each other’s answers, so the conversation does not flow as naturally as one would expect. The lack of score or background noise heightens the sense of intensity, since all we (and the performers) have to focus on is the conversation.
The cast changes every night, selected from a line up studded with accolades (National theatre and West End appearances), but the pairing I witnessed, John Pfumonjena and Patrick Osborne, were well chosen as their personalities contrasted nicely. Pfumonjena evidently takes great pleasure from being a raconteur, and is highly engaging and expressive with it, while Osborne is more reflective and ponderous - very generous with some more sensitive stories and darker memories, prompting us to wonder whether or not the questions were apportioned to each performer deliberately to give each a distinct tone. By the end, although we don’t factually know very much about our players, we do have a strong sense of their personalities, and that they know much more about each other than they might at the end of a more typical first date.
Together with TORCH, Oxford Playhouse have produced a piece which demonstrates the opportunities that digital media can bring to the realm of experimental theatre. I was certainly more captivated over the course of the hour than I would have been watching something not live, so there was a sense of the magic of live theatre distilled into the experiment. And the fact that myself and my partner were awake into the small hours of this morning discussing big philosophical questions is testament to how thought provoking the experience was - don’t miss it this week.