If current events haven’t already left you feeling slightly on edge, try wading into an online argument. Kieran Hurley’s new play Bubble takes place on Facebook, the platform serving as both the online stage for the show’s premiere and the setting to explore the aftermath of an ill-advised comment from a university lecturer to his student. The show is an impressively stressful watch that actively invites its audience to weigh in with polls on who’s in the wrong – though the premise wears thin when held up alongside the generation of students it’s examining.
Bubble‘s central dilemma is fairly timeless: a beloved professor has called one of his students a ‘slut’, backtracking when the event goes viral. If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that well-liked people and horrible actions make for an uncomfortable marriage. While this act of name-calling feels like relatively small beer, it nonetheless causes the online student body to erupt. When Barrett first appears on camera, that conflict is writ large in how vulnerably he’s presented. Graeme Stirling sits below the camera, imbuing the professor with just enough tech illiteracy that it feels almost endearing. Testimonies from other members of staff help to further muddy the waters, forming a neatly packaged ethical dilemma at the heart of the action.
Where Hurley’s script unravels, however, is its modern day setting. Connor (Emmanuel Sonoga), who first posts his report of ‘Slutgate’ online, even asks if anyone uses Facebook anymore. It’s a small comment that worms its way into my head. Why on earth are all these Gen Z kids on Facebook, interacting directly with lecturers? The realism of the show feels diminished from this point on, and the fact that all posts and comments appear as videos makes the show feel flimsy for not taking place on Instagram instead.
Similarly, there’s an ableist slur which feels dangerously out of place here, particularly in the mouth of feminist activist Jane (Malou Keiding). Blurting out an insult is one thing but typing is as a comment feels actively against the principles of such a righteous figure. It’s moments like this, and Hannah’s “kill all men” comment, which undermine the feminist figures in the piece and throw the show’s overall murky political stance into question. We’re given a situation where all choices are terrible: free speech spills over into MRA activity, feminist lecturers begin berating safe spaces and calling students ‘mollycoddled’. All the same, it doesn’t quite make the point about performative liberal views half so effectively as Barrett’s final update that he’s writing a book on the civil rights movement. The script can be clever with these tongue-in-cheek moments, but not so consistently that it doesn’t represent its activists as puffs of hot-air.
Emma Callander and Hannah Price’s direction nonetheless keeps the action snappy, emojis bedazzling the screen between interactions. The decision to remove Hannah (Emilie Robson) from the newsfeed entirely after her comments lends her reported death threats a scary amount of heft. The characters appear against all kinds of different backdrops, indicating the all-surrounding presence of social media in the lives of so many – bar Barrett, who gets away scot-free by not interacting in the discourse.
The piece is an interesting one, and it’s impressive to see the cast interact so naturally, given that they’ve not rehearsed in person; they’ve been recruited from six different universities across the UK and Europe. Where Bubble is let down is in its sweeping statements around the groups it’s satirising or pastiching. The setting feels a decade late for the impact to really hit home, but there’s certainly plenty to talk about afterwards – and goodness knows we have enough time now.
Bubble was first livestreamed on 23rd March 2020. Watch Bubble online here.