“Optimistic: Elizabeth Holmes” at Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Jeremy Malies in Edinburgh
12 August 2023

ZOO Southside – Studio
18:55 hrs – one hour
To 27th August (not 17th).

**** Four-star review

Money, influence and PR were the totems worshipped by Elizabeth Holmes, the now disgraced health tech entrepreneur portrayed in this wonderful piece of devised verbatim theatre by Canadian actor Sarah Deller.



In 2015, Holmes and her company Theranos were exposed for fraudulent claims (the extent and chutzpah of which were breathtaking) about their blood testing techniques which they alleged could perform rapid and extensive analysis of a kind previously achieved only with a sample taken using a syringe.

An early scene has Holmes being told, presumably by lawyers, that her brazen publicity output was unwise. She should replace superlatives with comparative adjectives and substantiate her claims. Holmes displayed cynicism and contempt for the scientific method while ostensibly working in a clinical environment. The scientists employed at Theranos were bullied and relegated to ancillary roles when they should have been leaders. While alarm bells rang in the scientific community, Holmes was able to manipulate information to the mainstream and investor community .

Whether she is chanting motivational catchphrases or giving us breakneck syllable-perfect readings of email exchanges between, Holmes and Sunny Balwani, her lover and fellow company director, Deller is compelling, inventive and resourceful. Her technical armoury as a performer is outstanding.

The acting and general quality of the piece is a wonderful demonstration of how good a one-person show can be. Deller conveys her subject’s surface charisma, narcissism and the toughness to threaten whistleblowers in which she was out for blood in every sense.

A Steve Jobs uberfan (even the late Apple executive and cult icon could not choose his adherents), Holmes was seldom seen in anything other than a black turtleneck which is Deller’s choice here. She captures her character’s pomposity, quoting her grandiose platitudes such as: “We’re working on the biggest thing humans have ever built.” and calling Theranos “my Roman empire, my Sparta”.

Lighting is stark. All the props are white, including a smartboard. Just about the only colour on the set is the United States flag. Deller performs in a circle drawn on the floor, occasionally illustrating things on the board to great effect. At times — and this is meant as a compliment — the tone and presentation style resemble a TED talk. If she was ever in a smidgeon of trouble with the intricate content, she improvised adeptly.

Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal published the definitive exposé of the scandal, despite Murdoch’s involvement as a start-up investor. The principal author of the takedown, the brilliant investigative journalist John Carreyrou, has published a book-length treatment

Holmes’s cynical misrepresentation saw her convicted in January 2022 for defrauding investors and wire fraud. She was sentenced in November to eleven years and three months in prison and is currently at a federal prison in Texas. Her detractors have alleged that she sought to manipulate sentencing procedure by falling pregnant.

Deller’s narrative stops well before the legal process and the core content is what happened from 2013 to 2015.

Having heard about the case and studied it in detail, Deller channelled her outrage to conjure up this wonderful theatre project. As we shuffled out of Zoo Southside, a more intrepid audience member than me asked her what had attracted her to this story. She said “Doctors were prescribing medicine to people based on these tests. And that upset me.” I can’t think of a better motivation for creating art.