The Royal Court Theatre is world renowned for its showcasing of new writing and contemporary themes, and Tim Price’s Teh Internet is Serious Business is no exception. Running at the world-famous theatre until the 25th of this month, Hamish Pirie’s directorial debut with the Royal Court is a vivid and masterful retelling of the real-life hacking scandal of Anonymous and Lulzsec in 2011.
“On reading the script for the first time, it was clear than Tim had managed to concentrate the almost endless insanity of Anonymous into a real, tangible, thought-provoking piece of work” writes Jake Davis, one of the original members of Anonymous. Davis was integral to the writing of the play and was consulted throughout the process. With the production in its final week, he is a staunch supporter of Teh Internet as a “shocking, candid” portrayal of life online, and the inherent dangers and opportunities that the internet offers.
The play is “a fictional account which has been inspired by a true story” telling the tale of the creation of Anonymous – a group of six hackers who managed to topple the online domains of the Church of Scientology, the Fox Corporation, MasterCard and Paypal to name a few. A potentially dry storyline, culminating in the trial and punishment of the members that were caught (five of six), and taking place almost exclusively online, the play is rescued from the realms of boredom by intrinsically clever production value and innovative portrayal of life online. Unlike Enda Walsh’s Chatroom, the actors do not simply sit at their computers, staring into the middle distance and conversing. Teh Internet achieves a much more dynamic and vibrant portrayal of the digital world. Instead of staying with the users, we are taken inside the internet with their avatars. Jake, whose name remains unchanged from his real-life counterpart Jake Davis, and Mustafa, are the two teenage boys that we follow into the internet. They converse with other anonymous users’ avatars, such as Kayla, a Japanese schoolgirl, who insists that she is indeed the rare and highly sought after female-online, and Tuxedo, a Star Fleet engineer. These characters interact directly in a set comprising of a grey box, split into squares, several of which turn out to be trap doors and hidden entrances. Likely representing the mechanics of the computer, the avatars move freely around the set like in a regular, naturalistic dialogue scene. Real life scenes are played on the periphery of the set, along scaffolding. Coding is expressed through interpretive dance, more and more performers joining as the code grows. Memes are personified by people in costumes, allowing Advice Dog and Socially Awkward Penguin to grace the stage on a regular basis, offering unhelpful interjections into conversation. The huge ballpit taking the place of the orchestra should also be mentioned I feel. Avatars such as the overly American Scientologist in a suit were rolled into the pit and quickly disappeared beneath the clamouring coloured balls, never to be seen again.
Physicalising a virtual world was never going to be easy, but director Hamish Pirie seems to have achieved it in a flurry of bright lights and animal costumes. The play is funny; it was always going to be with actors popping up from random, concealed trapdoors dressed as Rick Astley and singing Never Gonna Give You Up. However, beyond the comedic value of the utter absurdity and bizarreness of the production, there is humour as well in the dialogue. While there were a few stand-out performances, such as Lanre Malaolu as Mustafa’s gasping school friend in the Second Act, a lot of the acting performances were unfortunately obscured by the technical success. Neither of the main characters, Jake and Mustafa, were particularly relatable, making the larger-than-life avatars easier to gravitate towards. It’s possible that this was a directorial decision; making the fake internet more relatable than the real people, expressing one of the main problems with the digital world, however it does seem rather counter-intuitive to alienate your audience from the play’s protagonists.
Many could argue that these flamboyant production techniques are just fur coat for a play with no knickers, but Teh Internet offers a real message about the dangers as well as opportunities that the internet offers in this digital age. Shakespeare is wonderful and is a malleable study of human emotion, dynamic and interpretive, it offers a timeless insight into human emotion for any age. Price’s play offers the same insight into modern, digital and current issues with Teh Internet. For all the purists out there, it should be remembered that Shakespeare was radical in his day just as Price explores new methods of theatre in this one. There is an age-old hate of change in every generation since time began. The non-existent “Golden Age” of theatre, as well as language, manners, finance and courting among many others has always been mourned. The expected and traditional is often considered superior to the new, even in art. While a ballpit may to some seem low-brow, perhaps if looked as a physical metaphor for the power the internet has to absorb people’s lives into an entirely virtual realm, it will begin to seem less gratuitous. Many would argue that Pirie’s production is using smoke and mirrors to make a dull play seem interesting to new audiences, but every creative decision has been carefully calculated and is intelligently representative of online life.
We are shown the internet in all its glory, all its memes and in-jokes, all its social networks and pop-ups. We are shown both a romanticised version of the internet, and a darker more sinister one. We see the impact that the internet has on the real world, and how the digital can seep into the physical with dire consequences. We are warned directly by Jake in an unexpected and riveting soliloquy near the end of the Second Act that the internet is a dangerous place that knows where you go, and when you there, what you eat and who you eat it with, because you tell it without thinking. It knows how much is in your bank account, and how awful you look in yellow. This warning is not hidden; its overt and undeniable, but the same tune sings subtextually throughout the play. When a member of Anonymous is revealed as who they really are, when an Online Security specialist rather ironically, musically and spectacularly loses everything because he uses the same password for everything. Price appears to be telling us that the internet is great; it empowers people, allows them to make friends internationally, makes the world a smaller place, but at the same time it encourages a casual, anonymous cruelty and knows everything about you and is impartial when it comes to selling your information.
A very modern problem is tackled in a very modern way with Teh Internet is Serious Business. If younger audiences find Shakespeare too long-winded, Beckett too slow and Osbourne too outdated, then this is the play they should go and see to challenge their perceptions of the theatre as a dying form. The true art of Teh Internet is to be found in the realisation that this multi-modal performance exists only on a physical level; there is not a single screen or projection used throughout the production. Everything on stage is as real and tangible as the story. If anything is to keep theatre alive, then its productions like this, tackling modern issues in a modern way. Innovation will out.