Originally written for Exeunt.
“We’re getting used to a new way of being alone together. People want to be with each other, but also elsewhere, connected to all the different places they want to be.”
I write this with my phone sat next to me. With the slightest move of my arm, I can pick up a call, check for notifications, see if the little email icon is nagging me to clear my inbox. So far today I’ve communicated over phone, text, email, WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook. Skype is open on my laptop, along with a noisy crowd of different web browser tabs and three separate Word documents. All the information I could ever want is just a click away.
This is the sort of hectic, always-on digital existence thatAnd Now: The World! depicts. A slab of text by Sibylle Berg (here translated by Ben Knight), the play itself is a bit like the overwhelming data streams of the internet, there to be accessed – as the note at the beginning, read aloud, makes clear – by one voice or many. In director Abigail Graham and dramaturg Clara Brennan’s version, this anxious, almost hyperactive stream of consciousness is all spoken by Jennifer Jackson, moving restlessly around Sarah Beaton’s sleek, white, MacBook-style set. Her thoughts – about herself, about the world – are constantly punctuated by beeps and chirps; a distracting digital cacophony of alerts.
The unnamed speaker of And Now: The World! is sharing. Oversharing, some might say. She’s broadcasting her life (literally to us, virtually to the many eyes and ears of the internet), but with the fear that no one is listening. This is what the internet offers us: both an audience and a gaping void; a desperation to share, yet a feeling that our words and thoughts and emotions are simply entering a vacuum. Breaking repeatedly through Nick Powell’s crowded sound design, and eventually played at length, Sherry Turkle’s famous “alone together” TED Talk acts as a sort of half-mocking key for this production, the protagonist a living demonstration of Turkle’s aphorism “I share therefore I am”.
In narrative terms, the show doesn’t really go anywhere. The monologue loops, repeats, spirals off into transgressions, all separated into social media style nuggets. As delivered by Jackson, the whole thing pulses with anxiety: FOMO writ large. The speaker assiduously avoids venturing out into the world, yet she feels the need to check in with it constantly – if only to shower it with her disillusioned disdain. Zumba, baking, consumer culture – all are met with wry scorn, dismissed as distractions from a dying planet. The critique, though, is a knowingly empty one, delivered by a speaker who prefers to lock herself away from the world with the comforting chorus of her technology. She used to vent her rage by beating up young men in the streets, but now she just sits in her room, selling fake viagra on the internet.
In a recent piece in the LRB, Rebecca Solnit describes digital communication as positioning us between solitude and communion, “a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others”. We are never truly on our own and yet never truly withanother person, part of us always elsewhere. This is certainly true for Berg’s speaker, who is not content alone or with others. She instead chooses to communicate with all the people in her life electronically – by Skype, by text, even by the now nostalgic digital communication channel of MSN Messenger – but that communication only seems to cause stress. For such a seemingly contained, introverted piece, though, this production is incredibly physical and dynamic. Frantically responding to messages across different electronic platforms, Jackson leaps athletically around the set – a physical manifestation of the mental acrobatics required by today’s atomised forms of sociability. We might be stuck, but we’ve never had to do quite so much moving.
Little about And Now: The World! offers up particularly new insights. The lost, disconnected, screwed-over generation that its speaker represents is now all too familiar on stage, depicted most powerfully in shows like Barrel Organ’s Nothing, while the implicit critique of digital communication finds echoes in pieces such as I Wish I Was Lonely by Chris Thorpe and Hannah Jane Walker. The speaker’s paradoxical blend of anger and apathy, together with the ambivalent portrayal of digital media’s effects on our lives, is very recognisable, as are the many swipes made at shallow, hypocritical twenty-first-century society. For all that familiarity, though, Graham’s production still has some bite. “We’re shattered,” writes Solnit of the impact of today’s technology. “We’re breaking up.” And Now: The World! depicts that shattering in process.
Photo: Flavia Fraser-Cannon.