And Now: The World!, Hackney Showroom

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

Instagram. #nofilter

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.

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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.

https://embed-ssl.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together.html

Photo: Flavia Fraser-Cannon.

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Boa, Trafalgar Studios

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Clara Brennan seems to have a direct line to an audience’s tear-ducts. The playwright’s last offering, the doubly devastating Spine, left barely a dry eye during its soggy, sniffly Edinburgh run. Boa, which is similarly small-scale but wide-ranging, also produces its fair share of tear-stained cheeks by the end. At one point during the performance I see, there’s an audible gulping back of tears; the evening’s customary applause is followed by the no less appreciative rustling of tissue packets.

But where Spine effortlessly intertwined the personal and the political, dragging up sobs with both its ideas and its characters, Boa shows the strain of trying to replicate that feat. Again, there’s a relationship at its heart, though this time it’s a romantic one. Harriet Walter, all black-clad sophistication and brittle emotion, is the Boa of the title. Or rather, that’s her nickname, a childish contraction that stuck. Sometimes like the feather variety, at others more of a constrictor, she clings passionately to Guy Paul’s wry, brooding Louis as their lives are catapulted through the last few decades of world history. Love and marriage play out against a backdrop of war and devastation.

The story of the couple’s life together is told in economical but contrived reminiscences, flashing backwards and forwards through years of infatuation, excitement, anger, regret, depression, reconciliation, contentment, grief … Both Boa and Louis pursue livings that push them to extremes: the former as a dancer, contorting her body into constant, punishing pain, and the latter as a war correspondent in the ravaged south-east Asia of the latter quarter of the 20th century. Boa loses her faith in her body; Louis loses his in humanity.

The couple’s dissection of their shared history, placed in a present day context that remains indeterminate until the final moments, verges on the masochistic. Both are determined to isolate where things went wrong – in their relationship, in their careers, in the world – at the same time as reluctantly acknowledging that “you can’t fix the past”. But still they rake it over and over, stirring up old soil until you want to shake them and tell them to stop. Leave it alone.

The point is that they can’t. Hannah Price’s simple, intimate production captures something of the frenetic movement of these memories, snapping the action back and forth through time with the absolute minimum of fuss. Eventually, the two seem to bleed into one another, the past leaving its indelible stain on the present. We see this too in Walter and Paul, whose gorgeously layered performances feel shadowed in each individual moment by the characters’ past and future selves.

In an attempt to stop this obsessive scab-picking from getting too painfully introspective, Boa also casts its gaze outwards. The world intrudes both through Louis’ work, forever offstage and unseen but leaving its bloody mark nonetheless, and in Boa’s guilty, complicated preoccupation with the lives of those less fortunate. “I’m drawn to people’s suffering,” she admits, “it makes me feel.”

The handling of this confrontation of privilege and deprivation could be whereBoa gets more interesting, in the way Spine did with its angry yet unforced engagement with contemporary politics, but instead it turns out to be something of a missed opportunity. Boa and Louis are a walking parade of first world problems and they know it. Boa laughs at herself – and we laugh knowingly along with her – when she compares her rage at poverty and injustice with her no less forceful anger upon cutting into an over-ripe avocado, but Brennan rarely digs deeper than this sort of familiar and ineffectual middle-class guilt.

More convincing than the play’s nods to the wider world are the multiple ways in which its two protagonists fall apart and clumsily put each other back together again. “We’re all lovely fucking fuck-ups,” says Boa at one point, a bitter laugh on her lips. Between them, the haunted, hard-drinking couple offer plentiful proof of this over the years, but still they keep returning inexorably to each other’s arms, finding both retreat and redemption in one another. And what better reimagining of the old “warts and all” than the line “I love the piss and shit of you”? This is love not in spite of but because of every flaw, every ugliness, every mistake. That sentiment, if nothing else, can begin to make the eyes prickle. Because aren’t we all just lovely fucking fuck-ups?

Theatre Uncut in Edinburgh

Originally written for Exeunt.

Against a backdrop of crisis, cuts, turmoil and disillusionment, theatre seems to be reclaiming its place as an art form at the heart of popular protest. Only a few days after the widely attacked sentencing of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, a verdict whose announcement was marked by a day of protest across the world – including an event at the Royal Court Theatre – an embryonic glimpse of this year’s new international incarnation of Theatre Uncut is seen at the Traverse Theatre. It is the sort of protest that feels rough, messy, alive.

The series of short play readings, a taste of what to expect from the full autumn event, takes place not in the auditorium but in the theatre’s bar. We are told that this is to demonstrate that these plays can be performed anywhere; the hope is that this November they will be given life by hundreds of people in village halls and cafes, pubs and community centres. Beyond this straightforward aim, the bar feels like an open, sociable space, a space where audience and performers are not divided by an invisible barrier but where we are able to feel like simply one group of people gathered together with a common interest.

Extending this united messiness, none of the work that is presented is in anything near a finished state. Everyone’s time is given free to Theatre Uncut, meaning that actors assembled from across the festival have had only one hour in which to rehearse and still clutch scripts in their hands. There is something appealingly untidy about it, lending the event a fitting air of urgency. A more slick and polished product would take something from the importance of its message; here the potency lies entirely with the writing.

The pieces that are showcased at the morning event all take differing approaches to the political stimuli, a recognition of the multiplicity of voices and perspectives to which Theatre Uncut is responding. Anders Lustgarten’s The Break Out is succinctly metaphorical. A scene between two women given the chance to escape a benign prison and offered a choice between being “comfortably miserable or scarily free”, it confronts our apathy-inducing state of comfort and the illusion of freedom that can be so easily cast.

Meanwhile Blondie, written by Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme graduate Hayley Squires and absolutely nothing to do with Debbie Harry, takes the dystopian route. Playing with the cult of personality that has dominated politics in recent years, reaching its apex with Blair’s brand of “Cool Britannia”, Squires paints a portrait of a leader elected on pure, blonde-haired appeal. The brutal lesson that this leader then teaches the country – to “get a grip” – is lacking in subtlety, but lands a few painful punches on our greedy, fiercely consumerist lack of perspective. Dire as the situation here may seem, Squires reminds us, it is much worse elsewhere.

The most striking piece of the morning, however, is Clara Brennan’s Spine. Heartbreakingly performed by Rosie Wyatt, it tells the tender story of an unlikely friendship between a frail old woman and a teenage girl, while also writing something of a love letter to our dying libraries. It is a delicately multi-layered monologue, touching upon the deep and damaging cuts, the concept of political power and the idea that there is “nothing more terrifying than a teenager with something to say”, but its primary cry is one for compassion. Politics has forgotten people, something that this deeply moving piece does not allow us to do for a moment.

The morning is closed by two pieces even more ad hoc than the rest. In recognition of the Pussy Riot trial that has provoked so much protest around the world, and as a sort of epilogue to the event at the Royal Court at which the defendants’ testimonies were read, three actresses pull on balaclavas while we listen to the sentencing of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich. This is then followed by a rapid response piece by David Greig, written over a matter of days and inspired by recent news. This move towards immediacy is one which helps to solidify the ideas that have been floating shapelessly around the room, firmly reminding us that this is an event connected to and speaking out against very real problems.

But there is also an awareness that this is not enough. Sitting in a room listening to and talking about political issues is not quite action in itself. As Marco Canale’s candid monologueThe Birth of My Violence recognises, putting pen to paper instead of placard can be interpreted as an act of cowardice, an evasion of genuine action in favour of weak intellectualising, and perhaps it is.

What Theatre Uncut lacks in this current presentation is what makes it what it is: the element of mass protest. Performed in a closed space to a few dozen gathered people, these pieces can feel like cursory gestures. But when taken ownership of by people all over the country in a unified raising of voices, these short plays have the power to be much, much more.