At one point in The Royal Court’s production of Teh Internet is Serious Business [sic] by Tim Price, I had the thought “Man, I wish I could see the ball pit better.”
So there’s a ball pit. Which should speak for itself.
On the other hand, it’s possible that you’d share the opinion of the woman behind me, who said loudly at the beginning of intermission, “This is just too weird for me,” then spent the entire second act whispering to her husband, “When is this over?” Perhaps it’s rude of me to single out this woman… but maybe I can also argue that that’s in the spirit of the play itself, an anarchic, bizarre, and hilarious fictionalization of the exploits of LulzSec, an offshoot of the internet group Anonymous, who are famous for wearing Guy Fawkes masks and humiliating those who cross them. All of these titles project a false sense of centralization, one that Teh Internet in part perpetuates: there are no leaders or official membership in Anonymous. But the two central characters of Teh Internet are at least based on real people– specifically, Jake Davis and Mustafa al-Bassam, who were arrested in 2011 for their participation in Anonymous’s activities.
This arrest is where the play begins, at which point we go backwards to discover how Jake, an agoraphobic Shetlander, and Mustafa, a bored 15-year-old maybe-genius, found themselves falling in with the bizarre online world of 4Chan (the larger forum Anonymous grew out of) and Anonymous. What begins as escapes from their mundane lives and profound loneliness becomes something both deeper and more dangerous, though the tension between the ethos of 4Chan– that nothing should be taken seriously, and that everything must be done “for the lulz,” or for the amoral fun of it– and the opportunity to use their abilities and influence achieve social change runs taut through the play, and creates its most interesting conflicts.
Price depicts some of Anonymous and LulzSec’s most famous early exploits, including takedowns of Scientology, Sony, Fox, and various government websites in Tunisia. The play feels particularly timely, as the group has been in the news once again in the wake of the events in Ferguson, MO. A member of Anonymous released the personal information (an act known as doxing) of the police officer believed to have shot Michael Brown, only for it to be quickly revealed that he’d identified the wrong person.
The first half of Teh Internet, however, mostly revels in the utter weirdness of 4Chan’s internet culture, which is often a fairly good reflection of internet culture more broadly. In the process, it offers an intriguing and perhaps unintentional suggestion: live theatre may be the perfect medium for depicting the internet. The elegant gestural vocabulary and athletic dance sequences that represent coding, the actors in cat costumes representing the many famous internet cats, links (including, naturally, several Rickrolls) popping up out of trap doors, chatroom members dressed like Spider-Man and Captain Picard to represent their online aliases, memes literally wandering by– director Hamish Pirie captures better than a more literal medium could the short attention span and topic-hopping silliness of an internet forum or Facebook feed.
This is likely what alienated my fellow audience member. Price resists any traditional structuring, and the play features many episodes and digressions and little in the way of overarching plot. But this is a perfect match for its subject matter. How could a play about the internet possibly follow traditional rules? The piece does become most interesting in the second half, however, when Luke and Mustafa’s online and offline lives embark on a more direct collision course, and Price begins to investigate that contrast more deeply.
The dehumanizing nature of the internet also hobbles the play somewhat. Anonymity is right there on the label, and the impossibility of truly knowing the people that have made up their makeshift family becomes a sticking point for the characters in the second half of the play. The consequence of this– that only our viewpoint characters Luke and Mustafa can be truly rounded characters– does emphasize the episodic feel of their adventures with LulzSec, and can make the secondary characters’ debates about the safety and propriety of their actions feel unimportant, as we have little sense of who these people really are.
But, on the other hand, this is partly the point. Both Luke and Mustafa are profoundly socially awkward. Luke is, as previously mentioned, agoraphobic, which contrasts painfully to his role as LulzSec’s charismatic PR man. Mustafa seems like he could perhaps be on the autism spectrum, and if not, at least has no friends to speak of and turns to chatrooms initially to get practice talking to people. Anonymous is their only safe means of connecting to others. When a fellow Anonymous member is doxed, his identity published online, it’s a toss-up whether Luke flees his company just out of fears about his own privacy, or because the revelation means that there is now a real person with a family and a job and needs to face instead of a username in a Guy Fawkes mask.
In attempting to find a vocabulary to tell stories that exist online and in the real world simultaneously, Teh Internet is treading somewhat new and very important ground. I can’t pretend that Teh Internet is Serious Business is the first play to deal with these formal questions, but it’s the first I’ve seen. Given that, its successes far outweigh the places where it falters. It is a thoroughly delightful and unflaggingly entertaining evening of theatre, and it careens along to an unexpected and lovely ending.
Most of all, thought, I came away from Teh Internet is Serious Business with hope for the medium of theatre itself the likes of which I haven’t felt in a very long time. The cast is large and racially diverse, the subject matter contemporary and relevant without feeling tabloid-y or shallow, and most of all, the play makes full use of the power and potential of live theatre to tell a story that is inescapably modern and to depict the most important platform of the modern age. In the very near future, I think telling stories that take place at least partially on the internet will become inescapable. Theatre has an amazing opportunity to become the best medium for telling those stories.