Among the technology-inspired shows at this year’s VAULT Festival is Jessica Burgess’s Naked, a timely production exploring the frightening phenomenon of non-consensual nude photo-sharing online. Set in the present day, the story tells of 25-year-old Jodi’s return to her hometown ten years after her then-boyfriend, Matt, published a naked photograph of her on the internet. Jodi sets out seeking revenge; when she arrives, however, things don’t quite go according to plan.
“There are a lot of twists and turns in the story that will hopefully get the audience’s opinions shifting,” Burgess explained. “I was very keen for it not to simply be the story of a girl who was wronged, so there is sympathy with Matt as well as Jodi.”
Jodi is initially astonished at how little things have changed during her long absence.
“Matt has become a teacher at their old school, and is still friends with all the same people, whereas Jodi’s life is completely different now. Seeing that lack of consequences for him is one of the reasons she’s so keen to get revenge.”
The play is performed by just two actors, Burgess and her co-star, Vincent Enderby, with the characters’ history revealed through a series of flashbacks. Though the bulk of the play takes a fairly traditional format, the flashbacks are separately choreographed and presented in monologue form. Through them, two versions of events are recounted, revealing the disparity between Jodi’s and Matt’s memories of the incident. Maintaining a balanced perspective is something Burgess feels is essential to tackling what is becoming an increasingly widespread problem.
“The internet and social media exploded so quickly that we haven’t had time to set any rules or moral guidelines for it yet. Being online can make you feel anonymous, like it’s not real life, which makes bullying much easier. I’m not saying that excuses it, but I think that if we want to stop these things from happening, we need to understand why they happen, which has to involve empathy for victims and perpetrators alike.”
In the face of overwhelming pressure to constantly share and update, this is more true than ever today. Naked examines how things have changed since 2005, with a new emphasis on speed opening up dangers for the young and vulnerable.
“As a teacher, Matt sees how common these incidents have become. About a year ago, I was working part-time in schools and it happened almost every day. In 2005, it took ages to boot up a computer and connect to the internet, which gave people time to think about what they were doing. Now, with an iPhone, it only takes a second.”
Burgess is fascinated by the impact technological developments have had on our relationships and expectations of each other. The strangeness of how we interact online has been thrown into sharp relief for her through conversations with her mother, upon whose original story the play is based.
“Before everyone had mobiles, you had to phone someone at home, arrange to meet up with them, and get to know them in person. Now if you fancy someone, you can go online and check what they’re doing and thinking all the time. That just screams neuroticism: I think it takes a really strong person not to go crazy on the internet.”
The issue of the potentially permanent repercussions of online activity is one which, as Burgess says, we’re still struggling to get to grips with.
“It’s scary to think that we have so little control over how quickly things spread. Even now, we don’t really understand the full extent of the consequences of sharing online, because the internet hasn’t been around long enough for us to know how long anything will last.”
Thanks to recent celebrity leaks, it’s also an issue that has attracted international attention, prompting a shift in attitudes towards victims and culprits alike.
“When the incident happened with Jennifer Lawrence, I remember reading a tweet by Lena Dunham which said something like, ‘Remember that what these people did is a sex crime.’ I hadn’t thought about it like that before, and I think the way that it was dealt with really changed people’s perceptions.”
Perhaps this will ultimately inspire the development of new rules for online conduct. In the meantime, however, Burgess wants to emphasise the personal and domestic effects of such incidents, rather than making generalised political statements.
“I think taking something huge and narrowing it down to a tiny, intimate story makes it more human. I don’t like prescriptive theatre, so this is not an opinion piece: I want to open up the discussion and let people make up their own minds.”
Naked is directed by Lynette Linton, and is showing at London’s VAULT Festival until Sunday 1 March, with tickets available to book online.