How a Decades-old Cold Case Inspired Vertigo Theatre’s Latest Production

In Cipher, playwright Ellen Close uses a decades-old cold case to talk about modern surveillance.

Photograph by Mike Tan, Diane & Mike Photography

Ellen Close has always had an affinity for highlighting social issues in her plays, specifically how those issues impact individuals. Cipher, Close’s most recent work with collaborator Braden Griffiths, was inspired by Australia’s Somerton man case. In 1948, the body of a never-identified man was found on Somerton beach with the Persian phrase for “finished,” ripped from a book, in his pocket. Close and Griffiths found resonance for today’s audiences in their fictionalized version of the story, which they set partially in modern Canada.

“The thing about a cold case is there is no answer, but there is that promise when you go to the theatre there will be — or something satisfying. We knew that even on our best day, we couldn’t invent that, so we were interested in a bigger narrative that connected to our present experience. We wanted a conversation about the impact of surveillance and particularly digital surveillance. Cipher depicts a Cold War era and a shadowy agent figure in a trench coat, and it plays into all these ideas that we have from film of what surveillance looks like. The way that modern surveillance shows up in that timeline seems more drab and benign, but it’s actually far more dangerous.”

Cipher runs from March 21 to April 19 at Vertigo Theatre, vertigotheatre.com

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This article appears in the March 2020 issue of Avenue Calgary.

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