How do playwrights write about the internet? Or perhaps, the more pertinent question should be, how do playwrights write the internet? In a play like seven methods of killing kylie jenner, the internet is the fabric of Cleo and Kara’s world and as a result, it is the foundation from which that play springs. The internet in that play comes bottom up — it is the thing from which they plumb everything. They don’t reference the internet, they are the internet. It isn’t the background to that show, it simply is the show. There is something different going on in the way Harm, Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s new monologue and the Bush’s reopening show, operates. There is a sense of adjacency to how Eclair-Powell writes about the internet — as if it is a kind of portal into another world that will consume you if you are not careful, but can be dealt with, instead of something which has dissolved into the air, that permeates everything around us.
The protagonist, a 39 year old, unnamed estate agent, is not borne of the internet and likely would not have grown up on it — rather, it seems like she is an interloper: “I spend all night watching YouTube videos of car accidents,” she tells us. She is lonely, that much is clear, and when she sells a house to an Instagram influencer, Alice, Alice’s life, filled with gifted pizza ovens, “budget David Gandy” boyfriends, and Lulu Lemon leggings, consumes her accordingly.
Harm is, fittingly, at its best when it is at its nastiest. “I want her immediately,” Kelly Gough murmurs, voice dropping. She shrugs a little, and continues: “To suffer something unfortunate.” She finds herself on an online forum that dedicates itself to gossiping about influencers, a fictionalised version of Tattle Life, the users of which have been described as being “notorious in their unrestrained cruelty.” There is an awful, intoxicating built-in energy when the protagonist becomes addicted to both idolising and destroying Alice, a voyeuristic knife’s edge Eclair-Powell relishes playing on. The protagonist is a voidish presence, magnetic in the way a black hole might draw someone in, and Atri Banerjee directs Gough’s downward spiral by pulling out a kind of sunken, resigned brittleness that breaks down into something stickier, more acidic. Rosanna Vize’s wonderful design deposits an enormous plush bunny at the back of the stage, soft head lolling like a corpse, looming over the protagonist and gazing blankly into the audience.
The more self-consciously satirical elements of Harm ring less true for me than the grotty internal drama — there are references to hashtags, to the gentrification of yoga, to the hypocrisies of influencers who preach healthy living and then chainsmoke in their beautiful, big gardens, safe shorthand observations which feel more 2014 than 2021. But in many ways, it feels like a losing battle to even attempt to satirise certain elements of the internet when that space already acts as a kind of ludicrous ouroboros, devouring its own tail and collapsing in on itself until there is nothing left except for dust and dril tweets.
Harm is and isn’t about the internet. The kernel at its centre is about isolation, about what happens when someone who is that profoundly lonely finds a channel that both amplifies and preys upon their most vulnerable, appalling parts, giving every passing, petty thought space to expand and deepen. The internet feels like a device here, a smart, sharply used one, but still a device, something that can be wielded to prove a point, to elucidate an argument, and then put back in its box. There is more than an element of Greek tragedy to Harm, and the domino-tumbling second half alludes to the internet’s fickle nature, but feels a little too neatly ordered to capture its chaotic cruelties. At the end of the play, the protagonist is able to find a modicum of freedom from its clutches, wading into the sea with her step-mother. How wonderful and how unreal that feels.