What can theatre say about the internet?
Published in The Guardian, 22.01.2013
It’s a truism that the internet has changed everything: how we work, how we communicate, how we consume, and even – it has been argued – how we think. In a decade, our average weekly internet usage has leapt from 90 minutes to 15 hours; the web has sparked revolutions, pooled knowledge, and afforded cats and tubby South Koreans alike worldwide fame.
So why has theatre rarely grappled with the subject? It’s a question being examined at London’s Royal Court, where the internet is the theme of this winter’s Rough Cuts season of short plays, featuring new work from young British writers. Nick Payne has come up with a piece riffing on the web’s apparently endless capacity to distract, Alia Bano has written about BlackBerry Messenger, and Penelope Skinner tackles anonymity and trolling. Meanwhile another writer, EV Crowe, whose Hero won plaudits at the Court last year, is bravely exploring search-engine technology.
But theatre has, to some extent, explored the web before. As early as 1997, Patrick Marber’s Closer featured Clive Owen and Ciaran Hinds sitting at opposite ends of the National’s Cottesloe theatre having cybersex – albeit, says Marber now, to some bafflement: “In previews, at least half the audience had no idea what they were watching. No one had done it before. When we were auditioning actors, some went, ‘Oh, is this this internety thing?’”
A few years later, in 2003, Lucy Prebble’s The Sugar Syndrome looked at the multitude of temptations – mostly pornographic – available online; while three years later, Enda Walsh’s Chatroom showed a suicide spurred on by cyberbullying. Playwright Simon Stephens remembers The Sugar Syndrome well: “It was the first time I’d heard the Microsoft jingle onstage. At the time, it felt quite radical.”
But only rarely has theatre tackled the subject head-on. Last year, Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information skewered the atomised internet age (just 110 minutes long, it contained 57 scenes and more than 100 roles); but, despite scenes titled Google and Twitter, the play hardly ever mentioned the web directly – once in terms of dodgy network signals, once when an insomniac logs onto Facebook, and again when a character is sacked by email.
One barrier for writers, suggests Marber, is the fear of seeming immediately out of date. “It’s already too late to write the Twitter play. Two or three years ago, someone might have written a play composed of tweets, but now it feels a bit, ‘Oh, really?’” Certainly, the chatroom in Closer now seems almost as dated as the infamous “pip-pip-pip” payphone calls between adulterous lovers in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal.
In a larger sense, suggests Stephens, technology is itself problematic for dramatists. “What we deal with is behaviour; the things people do to one another. When we use the internet, we’re gazing into the black mirror, doing things to ourselves. It’s insular and profoundly unbehavioural. That’s fundamentally not dramatic.”
Playwrights have dealt with this in various ways. Walsh’s Chatroom reconfigured typed text as spoken dialogue; and in 2007, Anthony Neilson’s God in Ruins had two characters – an estranged father and daughter – enter as their on-screen avatars for a meeting in Second Life.
Other plays, such as Adam Brace’s Midnight Your Time and Continuous City by The Builders Association, have dwelt on Skype, while Dutch artist Dries Verhoeven went one further in 2010′s Life Streaming, connecting audience members live with performers in Sri Lanka affected by the tsunami. And at last year’s Edinburgh fringe, two performers from Belgian collective Ontroerend Goed produced a disturbing piece, XXXO, which featured them weeping at maudlin online imagery, before snapping digital self-portraits.
Although computer screens and keystrokes might not seem dramatic, even the web’s geekier corners can yield surprisingly rich theatre. In 2007′s Hippo World Guestbook, maverick theatremaker Chris Goode recited a transcript of an online hippopotamus fan forum. What began as naive and utopian (“I heart Hippos”) became a series of run-ins with trolls, before ending up in computer-generated spam – a potent if troubling metaphor for the web’s history.
Although Stephens himself has preferred to keep the web just off-stage, his plays frequently touch on the murkier aspects of life online. One of his characters cites googling as a hobby; online pornography is a recurring topic of conversation. “It’s in the metabolism of a lot of plays, in the background,” he says. “It’s affecting the way we write characters who are more dislocated and narcissistic.”
Crowe sees the most fruitful possibilities not in the digital world, but in the shifting boundaries we negotiate between on- and offline, something she tries to explore in her new work, Searched. “Who are [these characters] online? Why are they there? How aware are they of how they represent themselves? It can be incredibly exposing of their dreams and flaws.”
And, she adds, one reason playwrights have fought shy of focusing on these issues until now is because they – like all of us – are still decoding how the all-pervasive presence of the web is changing us: “The effects definitely feel like something of an unexploded bomb; like a new God we haven’t realised we’re in constant confession to.”
Marber agrees: if anything, he thinks the topic is almost too huge to write about. “I doubt Victorian playwrights felt compelled to write about the industrial revolution or steam engines,” he says. “It’s just the age we live in.”
Photograph: The Builders’ Association