Preview: The Phlebotomist at Hampstead Theatre
PUBLISHED: 13:50 25 March 2019
Crouch End playwright Ella Road has written a dystopian drama about a world where life chances and relationships are dominated by genetic tests
I call Ella Road about her debut play, just after receiving the results of a genetic test.
It turns out that I haven’t inherited the MLH1 gene mutation that has blighted my family with a raft of cancers.
But if I had, would I disclose my raised risk of illness on a dating site? - or a job or mortgage application?
And how might it change the way I lived my life?
Road’s thriller The Phlebotomist is set in a near future where a simple blood test can accurately predict not only your chances of getting diseases, but of developing mental health problems or breaking the law.
In a dystopian world where dating sites rank your ratings, and nondisclosure looks suspicious, Bea has fallen in love with Aaron and wants their relationship to be an old-fashioned leap of faith. Then a friend asks Bea to help her fake a test.
“I wrote it two years ago but it’s been knocking around in my head for years,” says Road, who grew up around Archway/Holloway Road and went to Yerbury Primary School.
The actress, who now lives in Crouch End, had wanted to write about the subject ever since seeing a programme about a predictive test for pancreatic cancer.
“It was about five years ago, when genomic testing was a very primitive version of what’s possible now, and I remember thinking ‘this is so ethically complicated’”
All of the science in the play is already possible – like identifying the so-called rebel gene which predicts your chances of being a rule breaker, but she has “pushed the ideas to an extreme”.
“In the last few years lots of stuff has happened in areas of research and genomics. It’s all become realler, like being able to test for personality traits or Alzheimer’s. It’s the fastest growing healthcare market. In the world of the play I’ve made it a more specific percentage risk ”.
Road sent off the script to numerous theatres and only Hampstead wrote back; scheduling it straight away in the downstairs space where it garnered such glowing reviews it’s now moved upstairs.
One of Road’s concerns is how genetic tests are getting cheaper, yet predicting things we can do nothing about.
“It’s about knowledge and what that knowledge does to your psyche, it’s amazing that we can know more and more things about ourselves but what does that do to our presumption of the future?”
While some genes such as for Huntingdon’s Disease mean you will definitely inherit the illness, most simply predict a higher risk.
“Knowing you have a much higher risk of developing schizophrenia - is that something you want do know? What do you do with that information?
“The positive side is there are things that you can do like change your diet, but there are predictions where there’s nothing you can do.
“My mother is a GP who sees see patients come in with a barrage of information from these tests, panicky about the future, but the health service is not equipped to deal with it. She says ‘I can’t treat you for something you haven’t got yet’.”
The Phlebotomist also addresses the big question of our digital age, of data disclosure and how personal data - in this case held within our genes - can be used and abused.
“Its the original what if? What if that information gets into the hands of insurance companies dating websites, large institutions? How would that stratify society? – that really freaked me out. I wasn’t interested in writing about a totalitarian regime testing people against their will - the dystopic world of the play is what happens when everyone wants to know and people are able to ask and disclose that data.
“It’s about how our quest for knowledge as individuals ends up oppressing us because once you know. you have to tell people. How giving away information about yourself can be used against you. The reason these genetics tests are so cheap is because the companies sell your data.”
Between scenes, audiovisual snippets offer a “fractured glimpse into what’s going on in the rest of the world” the frightening laws and commerce that spring from this data.
“It starts to impinge on them and they realise they aren’t able to escape from it.”
Currently adapting the play into a TV series, Road is exploring how issues such as population control and a genetic predisposition to commit crime, may come into play.
“In behavioural genetics they have found the rebel gene, people more likely to rebel against the norm, an extreme version of that would be people who are edited out early on because of their genes,” she says.
It all plays into the nature/nurture debate away from determinist ideas about our outcome being socially constructed
“We are neither a tabula rasa nor born with a blueprint of how our bodies will play out, but with a set of genes that will respond to the environment in a particular way that is unique to us.”
She made it a love story because having trained as an actor, her way into stories is through “character motivation and emotion”.
“One way of understanding this world is through how it impacts people and how they respond to it as they try to find something real in a world that’s increasingly unreal”.