The Royal Court Theatre | London
directed by Hamish Pirie
A socially awkward penguin reclines in an Olympic-sized ball-pit with Willy Wonka, a Storm Trooper and the affectionately titled Pedo-Bear. Above the stage hang the logos of Twitter, Facebook, and the hundred-million-view-grossing, rainbow-pooping Nyan Cat. Just your average night at the Royal Court. God knows what Olivier would make of this.
The opening of Tim Price’s Teh Internet Is Serious Business invests cyberspace with a warm, wacky and occasionally wondrous innovation that quickly becomes director Hamish Pirie’s e-signature. Two young hackers are being threatened with the astronomical sentence of hundreds of years in prison. Suddenly these figures of law stutter and jolt like marionettes, manipulated by the teenage coders: they are being glitched. The stage explodes and we pass through a screen, brightly – it is loud, it is crude, it is teeming with more general weirdness than you can swing a mouse at.
Originating on the imageboard 4chan, the hacktivist collective Anonymous has been seen, or not in this case, as a controversial power ever since the turn of the century – Time listed them in 2012 as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. Its inception may have been sparked by Scientology’s litigious online dominance, but derivative groups of Anonymous graduated rapidly to taking on the US Senate CIA and even the CIA. It’s a character journey to match Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, and worthy of the stage. Anonymous’ many targets range from the fair game (Westboro Baptist Church) to the ho-hum capitalist (PayPal and Sony) to the pure pitiable: 73,000 X-Factor applicants (surely they’ve suffered enough).
Chloe Lamford’s design is a ridiculous delight – the ball-pit a particular coup, symbolising everything from chaotic seas of code to a metaphorical chasm swallowing up concerned family members. The stage itself, riddled with tiled hidey-holes, conjures up the mania and quietude of a smorgasbord of sites. Emma Martin’s choreography fills the space handsomely, and the expression of lines of code through movement (tongue-tripping strings of semicolon-open-bracket-close-bracket-backslash) is bewitching to watch. More than anything, and here’s a rare claim, it all lends credence to Keanu Reeves – we are not so far away from a matrix of a world where the most powerful people are the ones who can see through code.
Our first protagonist is Hamza Jeetooa’s excellent Mustafa, a schoolboy savant drawn into coding by pointing out the vulnerabilities in a university fees calculator. “What about school?” he’s asked by the miffed programmer; “I learn more on the Internet”. And so he does, later turning his classroom on its head with a hands-on demonstration of how more homework equals worse grades. Alongside Mustafa we have Kevin Guthrie’s Jake, an agoraphobic living in space-abundant Shetland. In a performance that swells and swells, he morphs from tentative dressing-gowned recluse to rhetoric-spitting revolutionary.
Sargon Yelda is tirelessly mercurial as a parade of characters – be that the obnoxious security exec who has his Twitter feed hacked or a desperate Tunisian activist – and showcases an appealing array of rich voices. There is fine and fluid physical work from Faith Prendergast and Lanre Malaolu, who manifest Anonymous’ infiltration of a governmental website spying on its civilians. But the story follows the digital footprints of our two Brits, and an unexpected ending shines with boyish smiles as they meet for the first time in the real world.
Dramatic? At points. Interesting? Certainly. Fun? Oh, yes. It is not – as the Royal Court’s previous foray into this subject, The Nether, was – a cool play. It boldly geeks where no play has geeked before. But this reflects the awkwardness spiked with power that these young hackers possess. It will not be to some tastes, and some of the dialogue, faithful to the Net, is blandly offensive. But Teh Internet offers a rare and winning combination: high originality, sloppy but ballsy, and the willingness to tackle an issue affecting us all. Is the emergence of this hive mind a blessing or a curse, and where will the harnessing of it take us? Worth a look, worth a think – if only for the lulz.
photo | ©Johan Persson