seven methods of killing kylie jenner is perhaps one of the purest distillations of what it means to be terminally online — and after a year of being locked down, with only the internet for company, there is something particularly strange about being pulled back into its chaotic, distorted world. Two years after Jasmine Lee-Jones’ slippery, wildly ambitious first play debuted to enormous critical and audience acclaim, and a year after it was initially meant to return, it now reopens the Royal Court Downstairs. Provoked by the now-infamous Forbes tweet which called Kylie Jenner the first “self-made” billionaire, student Cleo, under an anonymous Twitter account, begins a social media tirade which quickly goes viral, as her friend Kara anxiously watches on.
The word that comes up most when I speak to director Milli Bhatia about bringing seven methods of killing kylie jenner back to the Royal Court is “reinvestigate.”
“A lot of the questions that I’ve had in my head [when returning to it] have been about how we talk about grief and rage,” Bhatia tells me, “and how we hold those feelings, both in terms of us making the show and how audiences are going to receive it. It feels different, it really does.” Parts of the script have been rewritten and added to, though the piece is still set in 2019, and the role of Cleo has been recast, with Leanne Henlon replacing Danielle Vitalis. Bhatia asserts that it felt like the team were making a completely new piece of work, as opposed to simply revisiting or continuing the first run. “The world is so different now. You can’t go back to this play and ignore the fact that George Floyd was murdered last year, and the renewed conversations we’ve been having around Black Lives Matter.”
It was essential, then, for Bhatia and the creative team to attempt to hold some space for the various types of grief and anger that might be felt in the rehearsal room, and that may well be felt in the audiences coming to watch the play. There is a conscious belief in how rehearsal room dynamics and conditions can end up affecting the audiences who come to watch the final product. “Honestly, if something doesn’t feel safe in the rehearsal room, how is it going to make your audience feel?” Bhatia says. This time around, there has been a company therapist onboard the team. “It’s a huge privilege to have access to that resource,” she says, “But it was essential to this process and this play. We had to investigate what it meant for us to make it as well as what it meant for audiences to come and see it.”
Part of the journey with remounting the play has been interrogating rehearsal practices that might once have felt like standard practice, but now seem outdated. “I think I’ve been able to re-examine what serves us and what we can throw away,” says Bhatia. In particular, she takes safeguarding in rehearsal rooms when dealing with sensitive material immensely seriously: “It’s about creating a space where you can be empowered to say, ‘that doesn’t make me feel safe,’ and those in the room will be responsive to that conversation.” In a wider context, other small things that have been taken for granted in many rehearsal rooms, such as production teams taking meetings during their lunch breaks, have been done away with by the Royal Court, and tech rehearsals, one of the most gruelling parts of the process, have been adjusted so that “we all finish at a good time, and everyone gets a chance to rest.” Bhatia stresses that those practices were not specific to the Royal Court — “it’s been fairly normal practice in the industry as a whole, but the Court was responding to feedback they’ve been receiving from freelancers over the last year.” They are small steps, but ones she hopes will have wider ripple effects. “A statement is important, but where’s the action behind that? I’m looking forward to seeing tangible changes in the industry. I feel hopeful, I feel optimistic.”
In our 2019 interview, Bhatia said that “The internet could never be a separate space [onstage]…these women aren’t on the internet — they’re in the internet.” How has the last year impacted how she thinks about the internet in regards to this play? “Before the pandemic, we were thinking about how the tweet spreads like a virus, and between stagings, there’s been a global pandemic,” she says. “This time, we’ve expanded that language more and dug deeper into it. I’m interested and excited by the idea of the body and the host [being separate things], and this idea of code switching. Code switching, or at least, splitting between personas, is something that’s really embedded into Jasmine’s writing. We talked a lot about the duality of the characters offline and online, particularly in relation to their navigation of the world as Black women. I’ve just been thinking about that a lot over the last year — that sense of flitting between personas. It’s about survival. I think we have a much clearer sense of that this time around.” Indeed, one of the most arresting things about the initial production was the way the internet was embodied by its characters — gifs and reaction images embedded into the playtext are performed by Cleo and Kara, as if they have swallowed or been possessed by the internet. “I think of the internet as the third character. That presence doesn’t end when Cleo puts down her phone or decides to disengage, it’s always present. That was the really exciting challenge for the team — how is the internet always active in the play?”
Bhatia speaks at length about what it means to “hold” an audience. Her work in the past has straddled direct confrontation with her audience (the escape room experience Dismantle This Room, which pushed its participants to imagine a more equitable theatre industry) and celebration and commiseration (the runaway hit that has been My White Best Friend). What did she learn from the audience during seven methods’s initial run? “It informed a lot of my choices as a director now. I became obsessed with watching the audience during the first run. Lots of people would just talk back to the play. And that was a real education for me, about how people will quite literally have a conversation with a piece of work.” There is one specific moment in the play where its characters break the fourth wall and engage directly with their audience, in a manner that is both defiant and inquisitive: “That is a genuine live conversation between the actors and the play and the audience. That was often the moment where people would talk back. I spoke to some people who had talked back to the actors and they said, ‘it just happened. It wasn’t conscious. It just came out of my mouth.’ There were a lot of tears. A lot of nervous laughter. I think that particular part is probably going to teach me quite a lot about how audiences are feeling at the moment.”
Something I talked to Bhatia and Lee-Jones about two years ago was the importance of the space’s orientation — in the cloistered upstairs space, it was impossible to not feel sucked into and confronted by Cleo and Kara’s world. Bhatia had said in 2019 that “Proscenium arch puts the audience in a place of comfort and safety, and that’s not right, particularly for this play… It’s too easy. I’ve seen too much work that ignores the audience.” seven methods was always intended to transfer downstairs, to that proscenium arch, end-on theatre, but the space has been configured to be in the round, and with social distancing measures, it will be a similar audience capacity to how it was upstairs. “There’s a surprising level of intimacy to the downstairs space,” she says. “I’ve been standing onstage for tech over the last few days and you can really see every seat and look every person in the eye.”
I ask her what it was that she thinks audiences resonated with so deeply the first time round. “The form is unlike anything I’ve seen or read before,” she says. “But the thing that brings people back to this play is, I think, something that Jasmine once said: it’s about two young women not just learning to love themselves, but navigating their love for each other, and it’s about the messiness and intricacies of their relationship. It’s a play about love.”
seven methods of killing kylie jenner is on at Royal Court Theatre until 27th July. More info and tickets here.