Review: The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (Outside the March/Theatre Passe Muraille)

Outside the March turns Mike Daisey’s quasi-factual monologue exposing Apple’s labour practices into a fascinating piece of meta-theatre.

I find it extremely difficult to discuss the abuse of workers in Chinese factories because the issue is so close to my heart. My family is from the Guangdong province of China, the heart of the country’s manufacturing sector. I have relatives there still and I’ve been to the Zhuhai Special Economic Zone and seen first-hand the horrible conditions these workers are subjected to on a daily basis.

Well, okay, not quite. I do have family in Guangdong but they don’t work in factories. And, while I have technically been to Zhuhai it was only because I was driving through en route to Macau, China’s ersatz Vegas. (Ha! See what I just did there?)

Mike Daisey’s now infamous monologue details the inhumane working conditions he purportedly witnessed at plants run by Foxconn, a company contracted to manufacture Apple products in China’s Shenzhen, Special Economic Zone.

After presenting an adaptation of his work on the Public Radio International show This American Life in January of this year, Daisey and his monologue went viral. When it was later revealed that he fabricated and embellished many of the accounts in his work, This American Life issued a retraction of the episode, largely debunked Daisey’s story and publicly shamed the monologuist.

While I own and use many Apple products (I’m even typing this write-up on a MacBook, quel horreur!), it does seem wildly incongruous for the world’s most valuable company, taking in $11.6 billion in profit last quarter alone, to have made that profit largely on the backs of abused Chinese workers and I agree that Apple should be scrutinized and held to account for its practices.

However, I wasn’t sure how I’d respond to Daisey’s dishonest monologue. Yes, Daisey’s work is a piece of theatre and in theatre embellishment is expected. The nuance here is that the monologue was presented under the pretext of being a factual account of a real-life experience. Daisey’s audience wasn’t willfully suspending disbelief to buy into an onstage illusion, they were being Punk’d.

Outside the March presents the The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, subtitled “and the Repudiation and Redemption of Mike Daisey”, within the larger context of the scandal and fallout surrounding the original monologue.

David Ferry takes on the role of Mike Daisey and performs the material with complete conviction. The solo artist held me in rapt attention throughout the nearly two-hour show.

Throughout the monologue, director Mitchell Cushman hands Ferry cue cards with excerpts from several sources; the This American Life retraction, the Praxis Theatre blog and Daisey’s own website, which he pauses to read to the audience. The experience is like layering a DVD commentary audio track over the piece that both contextualizes and debunks the parts of the show that Daisey embellished.

Essentially, Cushman and Ferry have adapted Daisey’s original monologue into a fascinating piece of meta-theatre. By presenting the piece in combination with the commentary surrounding the controversy, they restore a sense of honesty and allow the power of the piece to come through again despite the inaccuracies. I think they’ve largely redeemed Daisey’s disgraced work.

I should also note that the performance takes place in a secret location and audience members receive the details in a text message on the day of the performance. While I thought this was a quirky, fun touch, I’m not sure it really added anything to the overall presentation.

What I most appreciate about this production is that it’s an opportunity to further the discussion.  The audience is not only asked to question the human cost of our insatiable demand for new toys but also the nature of truth in theatre. Perhaps the performance asks more questions than it answers but it engages you and makes you think and isn’t that the mark of a great piece of theatre?


Photo credit:

  • Image designed by Chloe Cushman

2 thoughts on “Review: The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (Outside the March/Theatre Passe Muraille)”

  1. Awesome review, Wayne! I listened to the This American Life ep where Daisy told all his initial lies and was so shocked when it all unraveled. I’m sad I missed this performance because it sounds really amazing!

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