Wednesday 1 October 2014

Teh Internet is Serious Business - Review

Royal Court Theatre, London


Written by Tim Price
Directed by Hamish Pirie

In 2011, a small group of hackers affiliated with Anonymous and calling themselves ‘LulzSec’ (a contraction of ‘laughing at security’) embarked on a short reign of mischief  targetting the websites of Fox, Sony, PBS and eventually the FBI and the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency. At the heart of Teh Internet is Serious Business is the tale of LulzSec's youngest members – teenagers Jake Davis and Mustafa Al-Bassam – as they are slowly drawn into an online world that seems to free them from the mundanity and struggle of reality.

But this is no conventional narrative drama. Without a computer or untidy bedroom in sight, Hamish Pirie and designer Chloe Lamford have re-imagined the dark underbelly of the internet as the protagonists themselves see it: a kaleidoscopic big-kids’ playground, complete with multi-coloured ball pit and bristling with anarchic energy. The world of the internet chatroom is literally brought to life, ‘Condescending Willy Wonka’ dances around with ‘Grumpy Cat’ and Rick Astley appears through a trapdoor any time someone is ‘Rickrolled’.

How well this central conceit works probably depends to a great extent on the audience’s familiarity and sympathy with internet culture (beginning with the in-joke of the misspelt title). Despite a handy glossary in the programme of hacker terminology and online memes, I’d have thought much of the piece would still be utterly baffling to a large number of people and indeed both directly in front of and behind me in the audience were people aged 50 and over, neither group returning after the interval.

For those more versed in the culture, the necessary spoon feeding of various concepts and conceits felt a touch episodic at times. The first half, in particular, feels more like a series of sketches – Memes! Pirate Bay! Anonymous! Trolling! – and after the audience has got over the initial bursts of energy there is a danger that ‘acting out’ every last chatroom post and hack can start to have a slightly simplistic feel to it. 

The fifteen strong cast are uniformly excellent, but the nature of the piece leaves most dealing in stereotypes and clich├ęs. Whilst the onstage madness does a wonderful job of representing the anarchy of the internet, it offers little chance to invest in any of the characters. Kevin Guthrie and Hamza Jeetooa bring warmth and humanity to the two teenage hackers and Sargon Yelda is excellent in a variety of roles – the best as a man whose life is turned upside down by hackers and who, in the play’s funniest song, is mocked for using the same password for every online account.

Teh Internet is Serious Business is at times very funny, wonderfully energetic and even genuinely poignant. There is, however, the slight suspicion that the overall concept, brilliant and ingenious as it is, leaves some fascinating and moving human stories only half told.

Runs until 25th October 2014

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