Do we still ‘surf the web’? The phrase feels time-stamped to a certain era. It sounds clunky and old-fashioned, traits that jar with how we like to characterize the internet: sleek, innovative, always bent towards the future. But has the metaphor also lost potency because it no longer accurately reflects how we engage with the online world?
Less like surfing and more like deep-diving, Eve Leigh’s Midnight Movie stunningly performs the expansive, twisting, multi-directional act of going digital. Two avatars, Nadia Nadarajah and Tom Penn, sign, speak, drum, and embody Leigh’s browser tabs, while captions unravel on the back wall. Scrolling, swiping, clicking, new tab, new topic, buffering, deeper in, deeper down: video of an unsolved death from an LA hotel, stories of gods and goddesses of strength and rivers, the Blue Whale challenge. Then surface: ‘Babe’.
It’s late at night and Leigh’s awake, a consequence of an illness that rears its head by causing immense and intense pain. ‘Babe’ comes from her partner, who lifts her and us out of the dizzying depths we’ve been bathing in, complete with rubber duckies scattered about the stage. It’s the first feeling of solid footing in Midnight Movie, a profound and intricate meditation on how people with disabilities engage with the internet. It offers up an exploration of digital bodies and the ways in which they move, they liberate, they mystify, and they make meaning.
Midnight Movie takes its name from those nocturnal films too bizarre, too sexy, too queer to be given primetime status. In them, Leigh finds more metaphor: ‘All I want is for my condition to have a beginning, a middle, and an end’. But, like a midnight movie, it does not follow a predictable narrative formula, which makes it hard to decode through conventional framings of illness. So Leigh also lets narratives linger, upend themselves, resist endings and conventional form. There’s an added quality of the uncanny here too – deep browses that we might recall, once upon a click, little hints to videos we may have streamed before.
While Midnight Movie is in Leigh’s voice, she’s not there. At least not physically: ‘This is a place that’s very hard on people with bodies like mine. I can’t be trusted to be here telling you this every night because my body might glitch. So why not have a bit of fun?’ That fun comes in the form of Nadarajah and Penn, the avatars that wear all white with leopard-print socks. They mediate each browser tab, Nadarajah signing and Penn speaking and occasionally drumming. The dynamic between them works so well, each of them communicating and sharing with each other and the audience Leigh’s midnight digital meanderings.
There’s something mind-altering about Midnight Movie – chaotic, exciting, hair-raising and eclectic. All of this is evoked in Cécile Trémolières’s design: plants and sand and a pink satin bed and a drumkit and a backdrop of miniature buildings and a skylight… and… some other things? It’s hard to remember each individual object – a water tank in the corner! – but the overall sense of the space stays. The same can be said for Rachel Bagshaw’s direction: nuanced pacing accompanied by a ticking tocking metronome that makes time move like an accordion.
What Midnight Movie proposes is a radical rethinking of what digital experience is. It’s not like surfing, like riding a wave – instead it’s articulated as an entirely different embodied experience – one that is present and absent, that can occupy space and non-space. The digital body enables those who have rebellious corporeal bodies an opportunity to move in all sorts of ways not afforded to them in the physical world. That’s not a recreation, that’s not a simple surf. Yet the relationship between our digital bodies and our physical ones is present too – there’s a bit about ants eating up a data centre, which explores how they are mutually embedded in and impact on each other.
Midnight Movie is also a real examination of theatre as a medium. Not simply for what it can do – the sheer transformative power of a theatre that lets you perform the actual internet – but also the ways in which it becomes a place that welcomes some and restricts others. If you cannot attend, like Leigh, how do you participate? What does the digital body’s engagement with theatre look like? The answer is proposed through an experience of the show called Midnight Movie: The Digital Body that can be found here.
What if digital bodies haunt us, Leigh asks? That spectral quality is also how I think about theatre – the ways in which theatre follows us, resuscitates feelings, lingers long after the live moment. Yes, Leigh’s new play is dense, unexplainable even, murky like the abyss into which it plunges. Maybe that’s why I can’t get it out of my mind. Midnight Movie is haunting me.
Midnight Movie is on at the Royal Court until 21st December. More info and tickets here.