Ontolepsia. It’s been many years since I stumbled upon the word, I think in some tome about film theory. It describes a narrative where the viewer – and often the protagonist – aren’t sure what level of reality to trust.
The term is derived from ontology, which is the branch of metaphysics that studies the nature of existence, merged with the suffix –leptic, which signifies a condition of seizing. As in apoplectic, or nympholectic, or of course, epileptic.
Strangely, now that I try looking the word up I can’t find it in any dictionaries.
In fact – remarkably – the word only ever seem to have been published online once before, on the deprecated website of a programmer and Klingon-enthusiast who went by the name Zrajm.
The concept of ontolepsia has been popular in plenty of movies. Inception, the Matrix, eXistenZ, the Sixth Sense, Adaptations (along with everything else by Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze) all challenge our notion of what’s real within the narrative world.
The reason it surfaced in my mind now however, was a visit to the theatre. Last night I went to see Alltid vara vi by writer/director Alexander Mørk-Eidem.
Creative scenography has always been Mørk-Eidem’s callling card. This time the stage has been converted to a recording studio, where a band is reunited after its lead singers have fallen out with each other.
Those characters are based on Veronica Maggio and Oskar Linnros; two of this country’s most celebrated pop artists.
For a brief while they were also a power couple, before they went on to produce two excellent solo albums where each artist looks back at splitting up. Veronica’s “Satan i gatan” and Oskar’s “Vilja bli”.
Mørk-Eidem now picks his favourite songs from both of these, and creates a very believable make-believe band (there are thirteen musicians/actors on stage!) that has one opportunity to nail an entire album without re-takes.
So we get to witness this fantastic session where musical magic is created, but between each song there’s also drama playing out as the singers struggle with their unprocessed break-up.
On top of that, there’s a third story taking shape as a film crew shoot a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of the album.
The material captured by the cinematographer, who’s constantly moving around with his steady-cam, is streamed in realtime to a gigantic screen that hovers above the stage.
The effect is wonderfully confusing. In so many words; it induces a sense of ontolepsia.
That is to say; we can never be sure where to focus our attention or what story is really being told. Is this even theatre? It feels more like a concert… And is it primarily a live performance? Or is the live action just raw material for the projected video feed, where we see constant close-ups of the actors, creating an intimacy more reminiscent of cinema than of theatrical performance?
I’m leaving Stadsteatern not knowing what I’ve witnessed. What I do know is that it‘s blown my socks off. My teenage daughters seem to share that feeling. One of them have been crying, possibly for the first time at the theatre. (My nine year old, by contrast, isn’t impressed. Probably because she has little to compare the experience with).
The rest of the audience is also extatic, everyone raise to their feet and the applauds never seem to stop.
Up on stage bowing, are a bunch of people who defies categorisation. Some of them I’ve seen previously in traditional plays, but tonight they’ve revealed fantastic musical skills. Others are clearly trained musicians, but also somehow natural actors. Still others seem like bona fide film makers. I hear someone say that the real Veronica and Oskar are somewhere in the audience. I wonder what they make of this. I wonder what to make of it myself.
This strange experience leads me to think of Augmented Reality, the technology that promise to usher in the Metaverse; Internet beyond screens.
In my limited experience, this can indeed create some rather awe inspiring effects.
What state of the art AR-glasses won’t do however, is make me doubt the fabric of reality itself.
Theatre on the other hand has always had that potential. Boosted by technology, it’s now proving to be one of the most interesting ontological laboratories that are available to us. I have a feeling we ain’t seen nothing yet.