Nothing you do online is truly private. Despite the illusion of anonymity, the fact is that unless you’re using speciality software, virtually everything you say or share or view can be tracked, hacked, and sold for profit. Set in a highly plausible world where personal data has become the new currency, Darknet delves into issues of privacy, personal freedom, and our ever-deepening relationship with technology.
In fact, Rose Lewenstein’s script teases out just about every thread imaginable, touching on hacktivism, harassment, cybersecurity and social media addiction. Social isolation gets consideration, too, as does the growth of AI. And there are cat memes. Lots of cat memes.
This torrent of ideas has clearly sprung from some painstaking research, which comes across in Lewenstein’s confident grasp of these subjects’ intricacies and implications. However, she never quite fleshes out the human stories which would make all this information accessible, and all these themes transparent. Instead, we see several somewhat shallow characters paddling into the deep web.
The most fully formed amongst them is Kyla, played by the outstandingly-natural Ella McLoughlin. Just an average underprivileged teenager dipping into the internet’s secret places in search of methadone for her drug-addicted mother, she gives the play its clearest and most compelling arc.
Meanwhile Gyuri Sarossy’s Allen is a tech-evangelist executive for multibillion-dollar-company-with-cutesy-name Octopus Inc., which is in no way a thinly veiled stand in for Google. In the midst of a career-ending security breach, he unwinds with the help of a chill-out pod – ‘it’s kinda like a pod you chill out in’ – and some long chats with a Romanian camgirl. There’s something poignant and intensely pertinent in his realisation that these screen to screen conversations are the most intimate interactions in his life, and in his confusion of that intimacy for honesty.
Serving as a backdrop for all this information overload, Mila Sanders’ set features sliding panes and overlapping frames, as busy and as elegant as the iOS SpringBoard. The design is bold and tech-savvy, making neat use of projections while the inbuilt cameras of phones and tablets provide dizzying perspectives and invasive angles on the actors. Saturated in the pale glow of multiple screens, this all creates a fluid space in which the company can explore their themes, though the occasional tacky twist takes it all a bit too far. Depicting the dark web with footage of gurning lips and a flood of red light, dressing its digital natives in UV clubwear – there are a number of times when the design fights the show’s effort to understand its subjects, and instead drifts towards fetishizing them.
Though the production’s many, multifaceted ideas sometimes gel and other times jar, there is a compelling core to all of this, as philosophically thorny as it is scientifically complex. Though we go there every day, the internet is still a foreign country, and it is still impossible to fully understand its impact and its influence. Like a play, it can be a mirror for our culture and our consciousness, one in which we can see reality, identity, and morality as constructs – all fundamentally human, flexible and up for negotiation. Lewenstein’s perceptive and informed piece of speculative fiction is an enticing invitation into those still-uncharted regions of the digital landscape.
Darknet is on at the Southwark Playhouse until 7th May 2016. Click here for tickets.