Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 3
All I’d heard about ‘Teh Internet is Serious Business’ at the Royal Court before going was:
- It has a ball pit
- Grumpy Cat makes an appearance
- It’s about hackers
- And yet, despite it being all about the power of the internet, it uses no screens at all. Which is rare just for a modern play/production, let alone one about computers.
So I basically went with very few expectations – except, of course, that it was going to be good. Just look at all the four-star reviews it’s gotten!
The play itself, written by Tim Price, tells ‘a fictional account of the true story’ of the birth of Anonymous, the group of Internet ‘hacktivists’ and LulzSec, the elite hackers who stood for ‘lulz’ (i.e. laughs) and justice. From their bedrooms, these six people took on the Westboro Baptist Church, the CIA and FBI’s security company, Fox, PBS, and the Tunisian government, despite never actually meeting. A modern revolution with questionable morals, it’s almost unbelievable that this happened, making the plot just as interesting as the concept and the ideas behind it – which really isn’t always the case in theatre.
It’s a hard play to describe; like the internet itself it is amoral and frenetic and downright crazy. Memes appear one after the other – Condescending Wonka, Pedo Bear and Socially Awkward Penguin (who in a brilliant moment, becomes Socially Awesome Penguin) dance across the stage and cheer on or troll the hackers along the way. I particularly loved Ferdinand Kingsley as the first member to have his identity revealed – he is literally stripped of his Star Trek costume on stage – and Ryan, the ignorant hacker who wanted to trade robots for friends.
We focus in particular on two of the actual members of LulzSec: Topiary, the publicity man, aka Jake Davis, an 18-year-old with agoraphobia from the Shetlands, and Tflow, the coding genius, aka Mustafa Al-Bassam, an awkward 16-year-old London schoolboy. Kevin Guthrie (famous for being adorable in ‘Sunshine on Leith’) and Hamza Jeetooa respectively play these parts with brilliant believability. They capture the sudden switch and complete contrast in personality as they go from on-line to off-line. Jeetooa’s stutter suddenly becomes much more apparent, and Guthrie clutches compulsively at the bottom of his shirt. It’s clear how much of a sanctuary the internet becomes to them, especially through the set.
Despite using no screens, this set design by Chloe Lamford entirely captures this. The action takes place in a big grey box with loads of square holes in all the sides, and even in the floor, where people and memes pop up and down and in and out as they come and go on and offline. When online, giant clouds made out of coloured plastic balls descend and light up (an actual ‘cloud’) and everything seems more colourful, yet when the character we are following goes offline, bald lighting makes it all become even more grey and empty and dull.
The famous ball pond – which I seriously want a go in – is at the front of the stage. It comes to represent the millions and millions of people on the internet, and everyone’s different bubbles; all the things the hackers have to root through to find the weak link. Literal bodies fall into there, as corporations like Sony Pictures are taken down. It kind of showed how fun and playful the internet appears, but how one can drown in there too.
Website and company logos would descend from the rafters frequently; I liked the extra touch in that all of them stayed in full view, cluttered, at ceiling height. I thought this was kind of a reference to all the disorder and confusion of the web, and maybe just a kind of nod to those of us who leave loads of tabs open at the same time!
The coding parts – which you might think of as being the most boring – were done in a really interesting way. Dancers, dressed in exercise gear, would start doing modern, very fluid shapes around the stage, sometimes each doing different moves, sometimes all doing the same thing. When LulzSec were trying to find a particular piece of code among the entire net, a ninja dancer came on, working his way through the sites, until they discovered the code (many people doing the same dance), and the ninja did his own dance (i.e. the hackers’ coding) until he’d controlled the others. It sounds complicated, but it really works.
The most interesting part for me was the real sense of family between the six elite. Despite never meeting each other in real life, one could see their online identities growing closer, until they were truly bonded together. The absurdity and novelty of this situation was only truly brought home by Jake and Mustafa’s first meeting, right at the very end. Although we had seen these characters interacting so intimately before, now, offline, they had to introduce themselves by their real names for the first time. So strange was the situation that both suddenly, outside the courtroom, began to laugh.
This is an innovative, daring new play, which deals with the internet in a way I’ve never seen in theatre before. However, a great plus point is that you don’t have to know exactly who all the memes and references are to enjoy it. My mum had never heard of Nyan Cat or Condescending Wonka before, but she still appreciated what they meant – and especially loved the penguin! The young cast do a great job of jumping in and out of roles and keep the high energy going throughout. One can’t always hear the exact words being said – but then again, this doesn’t always matter too much, it’s the atmosphere that’s more important in this pacy, gripping production.
‘Teh Internet is Serious Business’ at the Royal Court Theatre: 4/5 stars