What if you could become somebody else? As part of Battersea Arts Centre’s Scratch Online programme, artist Deborah Pearson is currently working on a digital project called Another You, which asks just that question. For one participant, the artwork offers a glimpse into an alternate life; a digital collage of paths not taken and things that might have been.
WINK explores a similar possibility. Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s debut play incorporates two generations of digital natives: the twenty-something teacher, who measures his life through his Facebook profile, and the teenage student whose after-school existence is lived almost entirely online. John is already discontented and nostalgic, indulging in a miserable affair and clicking through photographs from his university days. Mark just wants to get away, away from school and family and the grief that seeps poisonously through his home life.
These two characters’ lives, connected only in the most superficial of ways, come crashing together online. Jealous of what he believes to be his teacher’s perfect lifestyle – job, girlfriend, holidays – Mark invents a toned and loaded Facebook alter-ego: the brilliantly (and perhaps knowingly) named Tim Walker, lover of cat memes, Banksy and The Inbetweeners. Believing the fabricated Tim to be everything he isn’t, John accepts him as a friend on his girlfriend’s Facebook account and proceeds to pose as the woman Mark fantasises about. Without knowing it, both men are talking to lies.
Eclair-Powell and director Jamie Jackson have John and Mark tell their stories directly to the audience, only occasionally acknowledging one another’s presence on the small stage. Each is alienated from the other and from the outside world, to a dangerous and unpleasant degree in the case of Leon Williams’ laddish and frequently unlikeable John, while the disconnection of Sam Clemmett’s Mark has a lonely, mournful edge. For both of them, the online world is becoming more real than its physical counterpart. Their desire for intimacy is palpable but frustrated.
As ever, the internet proves difficult to represent on stage. Plenty have tried to engage theatrically with this shaping force of 21st-century life, but too often these attempts are strained and quickly dated, while those that do succeed tend to eschew technology altogether and rely on theatre’s analogue qualities – think Chris Goode’s Hippo World Guest Book. Jackson’s production turns to choreography, recruiting movement director Isla Jackson-Ritchie to conjure an abstract virtual environment with just the bodies of the two performers. Inside Bethany Wells’ sleek, white, Apple-esque design, Williams and Clemmett twist and turn, arms swiping through an online cornucopia of content.
At times, this device is striking. In a moment of online confrontation, each character concealed inside an internet alias, the choreography pulses with aggression; later, as Mark encounters the internet’s uglier side, Clemmett reels from imaginary punches, the online world delivering invisible body blows. More often, though, the movement feels separate from the rest of the production, tacked on rather than integral. There’s occasionally a similar feeling of effort in the text’s allusions to the online world, as though Eclair-Powell were racking up points for each social network or internet craze given a fleeting mention – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tinder, Snapchat.
In the end, it’s all just a little too contrived, neglecting both character and plausibility in order to make its points. The play’s climax, instead of providing the high drama it’s so clearly aiming at, feels overblown and unlikely. In trying so hard to be about the internet, WINK – like John and Mark – loses its way in the online labyrinth.