Features Q&A and Interviews Published 29 September 2014

The Difference Engine

Tim Price discusses the similarities between Anonymous and Occupy, social mobility and why Teh Internet is Serious Business.
Lauren Mooney

Inflatable dicks, dancing bears and a giant ball pit. Tim Price’s Teh Internet is Serious Business had an ambitious remit: not only to tell the story of an online political movement, but to find a way of theatrically conveying the scale and complexity of the internet itself. The production has divided audiences and critics along the way: there have been interval walk-outs and acclaim, there has been an emoji review, but Price didn’t exactly set out with the desire to confront comfortable theatre-going audiences with lolcats.

“I’d written two plays previously – one about Chelsea Manning, that touched on Wikileaks and Freedom of Information and net neutrality and stuff [The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning for National Theatre Wales], and then I wrote a play about the Occupy movement, and Anonymous felt like the third piece of that kind of triptych, really… Lots of people said the only difference between the [Occupy movement and Anonymous] was that Anonymous was online and Occupy was in the street, so there was lots of crossover between those two movements. As I researched the Chelsea Manning play, Anonymous kept kind of coming up as a story to tell and it’s such an extraordinary story – the only challenge was how to put it on stage really.”

It’s a challenge Price and creative the team at the Royal Court, including director Hamish Pirie and designer Chloe Lamford, have risen to admirably. Price describes Teh Internet as the “most ambitious” play he’s written to date – indeed, it follows Protest Song, a single-setting monologue in which Rhys Ifans played a homeless man who gets caught up with the Occupy movement. It’s certainly similar in outlook, but in scale it could hardly differ more; Teh Internet has a cast of 15 – and did I mention the ball pit?

On the afternoon I chat to Price, the show is in previews and they have been mired in the complex rehearsal process for some time. “Part of the process has been about cutting back, really – which has not been a huge part of the process of other plays, they’ve been a lot smaller scale. We’ve been doing a lot of cutting to try and get it to a manageable length…”

This being just before press night, Price is pleased with what they have achieved, but a little nervous as to how the play will be received. “It is a really unique challenge, because crucial to the movement is that everybody is Anonymous and nobody ever reveals anything about themselves to anybody else,” Price explains, adding, with a laugh, “which is kind of the opposite of drama!”

“It’s been an almost impossible Rubik’s Cube to unlock, and I’m not sure if we’ve delivered on it – it’s something that I’m still kind of deeply involved in, identifying the things that aren’t working. It’s been a challenge I’ve never had before and probably will never have again, but it’s made the play look and feel like nothing I’ve seen before…it doesn’t particularly look like anything else you’ve probably seen on the Royal Court stage.”

That is certainly true. Perhaps the last noteable play about the internet was James Graham’s Privacy at the Donmar Warehouse. Both plays were interested in the internet as a modern social phenomenon, but their approaches were dramatically different. Teh Internet pretty much kicks its way out of your laptop screen by force, as if coming from deep within the heart of the internet itself.

“I think Privacy and Teh Internet is Serious Business are dealing with the same thing but from kind of opposite sides,” Price says thoughtfully. “Privacy looked at this kind of stuff and the audience were left with a feeling of, you know, you should be very afraid of this technology. And I think Teh Internet is coming from the inside and kind of saying, this technology is actually our only hope. So things like net neutrality and the way corporations and governments try to force us to have online identities so that they can coerce, manipulate and monetise our behaviour…anonymity is a human right that hardly any of us exercise anymore. It’s not protected in any statutes, when perhaps it should be. And one way to get privacy is to be anonymous, yet the Anonymous movement is kind of looked at as these hacking malignant trolls, and that’s the establishment view but it’s – it’s a movement. Anonymous offers a way forward and a way to navigate the internet in a way that I don’t think anybody else is at the moment.”

Tim Price's Protest Song

Tim Price’s Protest Song

Price has no romantic illusions about the realities of the bear pits that gave birth to the Anonymous movement: “4Chan has no moderation and no identity…It’s like where you can see the most disgusting things and the most vile language, it’s very much driven by the lack of censorship and moderation…” But he’s never dismissive, always discussing the movement with the absolute awareness of its complexity, the refusal to be reductive that you’d hope to see from a young playwright rapidly developing a reputation for political theatre.

“There’s a generation of people now who feel more like netizens than they do like British subjects or members of any other community,” says Price. “They feel more part of the internet community than anything else – and that’s not interrogated by the mainstream media.”

Price has started a fascinating conversation, tugging an under-explored subculture out into the mainstream. This is especially important given that Price view the internet as a potential force for social equality.

“The way the Tory party talks about social mobility for young people…it doesn’t work in real life, because nobody starts at the same point. So social mobility will only ever work in society if it’s a two-way street – if mediocre people at the top can end up working in Lidl, you know? I’ve never heard of anybody who was educated at Eton moving to the valleys and working in a zero-hour, insecure factory job. But in something like Anonymous, where there’s no names and no identities, nobody can be prejudiced about race, gender, sexuality or age – it’s just about your talent and your ideas. So if you are incredibly gifted, like the two boys the play’s based on, you can rise to the top.”

He thinks for a moment before adding, “What’s even more interesting is that in a non-hierarchical organisation, there is no top to rise to, so what happens is that instead of rising to the top, talent gravitates towards each other, talent gets magentised. If there’s nobody at the top, nobody can tell you not to do it.”

Underneath all the memes and lolcats, perhaps this is the really revolutionary thing about the internet and Teh Internet both: the vision of a society fuelled by true social mobility.

Teh Internet is Serious Business is at the Royal Court, London, from 17th September – 25th October 2014

Stewart Pringle’s review of Teh Interneis Serious Business


Lauren Mooney

Lauren Mooney is a writer, producer and arts administrator based in London. As well as writing for Exeunt and The Stage, Lauren works at Clean Break and is the writer-producer for Kandinsky.



Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.