The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

William Morgan in 'The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs' by Mike Daisey.

William Morgan in 'The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs' by Mike Daisey.

‘Documentary theatre’ can be a problematic term for describing a problematic mode of performance. The ‘documentary’ part of this term suggests fact-checked reportage that holds up to scrutiny when its veracity is questioned, while the ‘theatre’ part suggests the realm of dramatic imagination, where truth may not be necessarily fact-based reportage, but is instead presented as a general human truth generated out of the machinery of narrative fiction. Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs has the look and feel of a confessional documentary, and we’re meant to take at face value Mr. Daisey’s personal accounts of harsh labour conditions in Chinese factories making Apple products. But the use of dramatic license to embellish these accounts, especially in the first version of this play, have called into question Daisey’s reliability as an eyewitness.

It is difficult to discuss the current production of Daisey’s monologue play at The Viking Theatre in Clontarf without taking into account the controversy that has surrounded Daisey and the specific claims his story makes about Apple’s complicity in unethical labour practices. This ultimately lies at the heart of determining why this current production, produced and directed by Breda Cashe, has staged the play in the way it has. The monologue, originally performed by Daisey himself, attempts to simultaneously document the rise of Apple and the inhumane and brutal work practices within a Foxconn plant that, like many others across China, is contracted to make products for Apple and a host of other global technology companies. In The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Daisey describes his journey to a Foxconn plant in Shenzhen where he interviews workers on the difficult conditions inside. After the success of the first version of the play, Daisey appeared on a number of American media outlets reiterating claims of human rights violations he said he saw with his own eyes.

It came to light when a shortened version of the monologue was presented on the National Public Radio programme 'This American Life' that Daisey had embellished, conflated or simply made up elements of his account, calling into question his credibility. Daisey admitted he shouldn’t have presented those fictions or embellishments in his story as fact. But while Daisey appears to have addressed those issues in the latest version of the text, he has said that the theatrical frame within which he presented The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs inoculates him from having to follow the same standards as a journalist. This, he says, still affords him to the right to present his work as, what one actor who recently performed the monologue called ‘poetic journalism’.

This seems a bit like a cop out. There’s enough damning evidence of companies in China and elsewhere exploiting workers for the benefit of selling cheaper goods to first world consumers, why would Daisey feel the need to make up or embellish stories in order to make his own monologue more ‘dramatic’? The attempt to present this issue as simply Mike Daisey’s own melodramatic Passion Play distracts from its broader implications.

Which brings us, finally, to the current production at The Viking Theatre and an opportunity missed. Director Breda Cashe gives us a straightforward, uncritical staging of Daisey’s monologue, with William Morgan playing Daisey. Framed by Kate Moylan’s effectively realised industrial design (which echoes the gleaming formal features of an Apple product), and assisted by Colm Maher’s subtle lighting, Morgan delivers Daisey’s words without comment, instead attempting to give us what one suspects is a distant echo or caricature of Daisey himself.

Ultimately there’s something troubling about someone else’s story being presented here as unquestioned fact without the attempt to address who Mike Daisey is, how he knows what he knows and whether we can accept what he says as a truly reported personal account. Admittedly, The Viking Theatre website refers to the monologue as a ‘drama’ rather than a piece of documentary theatre, and it makes a passing reference to the controversy. But the fact that no mention is made within the performance itself (or even in the programme) about the questions surrounding Daisey’s story turns the production into merely a satellite staging of Daisey’s work rather than a real engagement with it.

Daisey has to his credit allowed his text to be downloaded off his website and performed royalty-free as a way of helping to highlight the issue, with permission given to those wishing to stage the monologue to alter it or adapt as they see fit. With this in mind, every opportunity was given for Cashe and Morgan to engage directly with Daisey’s text, to add their own views to it and actively interrogate the subject, from questions about how Daisey got his story, to how Ireland fits into this narrative, to what Morgan and Cashe themselves think about Apple and how consumers in the West generally (and Ireland specifically) benefit from makers in developing industrial economies. They chose not to, and unfortunately the play’s powerful message about our responsibilities as first world consumers loses some of its potency as a result.

Jesse Weaver

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs by Mike Daisey

15 - 27 April 2013

Produced by Breda Cashe
In the Viking Theatre, Clontarf

Directed by Breda Cashe

Lighting Design: Colm Maher

With: William Morgan