If something doesn’t directly affect you, then why should you care? In Elinor Cook’s new play, a video of a young girl in a yellow dress being shot by the police hits the Internet and goes viral. Cook looks at the impact of the video on the uploaders, on the unnamed country in which it started a revolution and on a woman in London looking for ways to help. It tells the story both inside and out: from the perspective of those it directly affects, and those on the other side of the world.
Not all of the characters are particularly interesting. Boyfriend and girlfriend Ali and Leyla, who uploaded the original video, have fairly trite boyfriend/girlfriend conversations. She nags him, he goes and perves on some other pretty girl. But the scope of the play, and the way it problematises so much of the way that our society and our media, new and old, deal with tragedies in far off places is wide-ranging and thoughtful and angry.
Eileen Walsh as Yasmin is constantly, unremittingly powerful as she searches for her mother amid the chaos of her anonymous country’s revolution. She doesn’t care about the transient symbol of the revolution, the yellow dress that the young people of her country are rallying around, and instead only wants to find her mother – to her, that’s the only thing that matters. Walsh’s rising panic shows the frightening lengths to which someone will go in a desperate situation.
In a standout scene Yasmin comes across some British journalists. She begins to speak to these journalists in an unrecognisable language – they have a camera, they can help find her mother. But the way the reporters speak about her, knowing she can’t understand, is intolerable. As soon as she speaks in a foreign language, she’s some kind of alien that can be dismissed. Media infantilises the Other. Reports from war zones, human interest stories, they’re not proper empathy; they’re a way of satisfying that guilt that urges us to care. Or to feel like we should.
What is the spark that ignites a revolution? What causes should we fight for? Is it enough to fight for those causes on social media – like, share, comment? Is Michelle Obama waving a placard with a hashtag the best we can do? Cook’s play is about causes and the causes of those causes. News can break instantly and reaction to it is often immediate and unconsidered. Opinions change as soon as a new Buzzfeed listicle comes out with an alternative viewpoint. As much as we want it to be and as much as social media encourages that binary of like/dislike, or the limited capacity for meaningful dialogue by restricting character counts, the world and its problems are not black and white.
Our image-led world is embodied in Fly Davis’ black catwalk set. The audience sits around it, ogling up at the miseries of the people strutting their stuff. The agony of others is spectacle for us. Cook’s script pulls off handbrake turns from horror to shallowness; one minute the characters are lamenting the horror of a viral video, the next they’re using it to make jokes and then just getting on with their lives.
Cook throws up similar themes to the stunning Body of an American, which was on at the Gate in January last year, and looked at the relativity of suffering: is the depression of a playwright in middle America any less meaningful, any less painful, than the turmoil of those in the middle of a civil war? So, here, we have an upper-middle class character whose life is red wine, alimony and the World Service, trying to do some good by remotely adopting a victim of a civil war.
In a deeply uncomfortable 90 minutes, that prod at and complicate the gap between sympathy and empathy, Cook seems to conjure our entire world. This is not a pleasant play – loud noises, intense lights, huge tone shifts ensure that – but, when the affairs of other countries in some senses have never seemed closer and in others never seemed more alien, it’s a profoundly important one, and one that confronts our world right now.