Reviews West End & Central Published 26 September 2014

Teh Internet is Serious Business

Royal Court, Jerwood Downstairs ⋄ 18th September - 25th October 2014

Eye-searing, buoyant and primal.

Stewart Pringle

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/b/ is weird. The oft proclaimed ‘Wild West of the internet’, it more often resembles a social centre for crotchety, ageing psychopaths. For all of the r8 my cock threads, the mayfly child porn splurges, the snuff gifs and the gore galleries, most of the time on most of the threads you’ve just got a lot of Anonymous fuck-sticks slugging it out over who’s ‘killing /b/’, when /b/ got shit, and the good old days before /b/ was flooded with ‘newfags’, ‘summerfags’ ‘furfags’ and whatever you call those men who have sex with My Little Ponies. The topics of the day are, and have always been, who was here first, who should be here and who should fuck the fuck off before they spread their cancer through the clean clean cells of this beloved losers club. Now that /b/’s the background to one of the Royal Court’s most exciting commissions in ages, it’s presumably full of theatrefags too, but for all of its grotesqueries, cruelties and posturing, there’s something innately touching about /b/, something that not only reflects 21st century tribalism but also speaks directly to a human graving for acceptance and belonging, and it’s this unexpected underbelly that Tim Price’s gonzo modern history plunges into.

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Last time the Court took on the internet the results were pretty mixed, with The Nether all too aware of its own uncomfortable topics, flaunting the dark frissons of deviant sexuality with just a little too much reactionary glee. The Nether‘s version of the internet is noirish, Matrix-y dystopia, capable of unlocking dangerous potentials in its users. Here, brilliantly, Price takes the internet in his stride, and with the help of Hamish Pirie’s determinedly low-tech production (no projectors!) the growth of revolutionary hactivists LulzSec is traced with both day-glo buoyancy and impressive clarity. It’s a story that will be familiar to anyone who followed the growth and self-cannibalism of the group in the press, and the individual human stories within it are unfortunately flat, but its wider human implications are as fascinating as the intricacies of the information war it dramatises.

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Price follows two young men on their journey from the shores of 4Chan to the storm of LulzSec. It’s essentially a true story, one that balances two different kinds of isolation (one intellectual, the other emotional) with the codified gang-like community of hackers that would form from the bedroom code-heads that permeate 4Chan and its fellow sites and chatrooms. An ‘OFFLINE’ sign is illuminated whenever the action shifts IRL, where the teenagers who would come to be globally infamous as Tflow and Topiary battle through their lacklustre lives. Blunt tools they may be, but these scenes form an intentionally eye-searing counterpoint to the multicoloured fantasia which unfolds when the light goes down and the boys log online and plunge into the madness of the unregulated internet.

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A pool of coloured balls provides an excellent visual metaphor for the enormity and unknowableness of the internet – a seeming infinity of colours and possibilities that you can plunge into with wild abandon, but which also has the power to suck you in and under. But Price’s most important achievement is his understanding that however obscure and anarchic the alphabet may seem to outsiders, even /b/ and the chat-channels of LulzSec have a language, one which can be taught and, more importantly, self-taught to those who seek acceptance and belonging. It’s what makes the opening scenes, where Advice Dog and Socially Awkward Penguin introduce themselves to the audience like characters from Alice In Wonderland (which the play frequently resembles), so…well…awkward. There’s nothing less funny than someone explaining a joke, but it’s a neccesary evil that allows Teh Internet… to bring its lay audience to at least the threshold of comprehension, so that later the memes can be deployed to colour and punctuate the action.

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The theatrical form frequently fails its content, but even when you’re witnessing a DDoS attack brought to life with fucking tamborines there’s something heroic about it. Even the world’s worst Harlem Shake brings a smile. Applying a DIY aesthetic to a community which is as staunchly self-educated and self-facilitating as LulzSec, however vast the gulf in technological sophistication, feels thrillingly appropriate, and it helps the play glide through rougher patches, where the back and forth of security breeches and infighting begins to exhaust itself.


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If Vicky Featherstone’s reign at the Court has been marked by any one thing, it might be the tendency of shows in the past year to take their time, to avoid bombast in favour of a looser, rougher approach to dramaturgy. A punchy show like Birdland excepted, most of the headline plays have proven quite happy to occasionally isolate, or even bore their audiences in pursuit of a well-considered and deeply-engaged argument. It’s a very good thing, if that’s not clear, and it’s a tendency that’s absolutely in evidence here. Many of the most fascinating themes are allowed to burble in the background, lifted to the lips for a brief taste rather than rammed down the throat. One which passes almost entirely without comment, but persists in the memory is the magical property of anonymity, and therefore of naming, which exists in these nascent new families or societies. There’s something primal at play here, and though Price and Pirie play it for Wicked-style camp with the presence of a cackling wicked witch, it’s original and quietly spine-tingling stuff.

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That’s not to deny Teh Internet… its moments of show-stopping fun. A West End musical extravaganza greets one hapless security expert’s fatal re-cycling of passwords, and an early downpour of inflatable cocks is probably my favourite thing to ever happen in the Jerwood Downstairs, but for all of its Funhouse mania, it’s better at the smaller and subtler stuff. This extends to its politics, too, though LulzSec’s role in reforming the global face of information and security is referenced, it never climbs onto its soapbox or risks over-extending its hand. The time Price spent with members of Anonymous and LulzSec has paid off in a privileging of detail and story-telling over reactionary bluster or grandstanding.

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The message which sings out most clearly and elegantly is that /b/, for all of its obscenity and viciousness; and LulzSec, for all of its vast global impact and high ideals, are both essentially products of a basic human need to belong, to matter, to possess a community and a place within it. Even the games of misogynistic one-upmanship, however deplorable, exist like tests or taboos, to bind initiates closer together and therefore hold the rest of the world further apart and away. If the world of l33t-speak and memes can feel impenetrably obscure, Teh Internet… ultimately reminds us that technology and its products ultimately serve us, and form themselves in new and strange images of the things which are the oldest and the most familiar.


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Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Teh Internet is Serious Business Show Info


Directed by Hamish Pirie

Written by Tim Price

Link http://royalcourttheatre.com/

Running Time 2 hrs 35 mins (inc interval)

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