The news has recently been awash with an abundance of stories detailing the ‘dark side’ of the internet. From Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations to Bitcoin’s murky dealings, the world wide web celebrated its twenty-fifth birthday this week against a turbulent background. In a timely fashion Out of Town Productions’s performance of Chatroom as part of Brighton’s 2014 Sick! Festival highlights the danger of online faceless communication.
Devoid of acknowledging any responsibility or the reality of their words, six teenagers from Chiswick chat virtually, and the conversation rapidly escalates into a discussion of suicide. Two of the characters, Eva and William, decide to encourage vulnerably emotional Jim to enact his suicidal thoughts and “do the decent thing”.
Throughout the whole performance, the isolation of the characters from reality – and from each other – is stressed through their lack of physical interaction on stage. The simple set design, with characters entering and exiting with white chairs and illuminated by a single light when they are online, emphasises this disembodied communication. Being spoken to as an audience, as if we ourselves have become a giant computer screen, allows us to experience the heightened teenage emotions in a particularly direct manner.
The horror of Eva (Tanya Reynolds) and William’s (Toby Vaudrey) bullying is amplified by simple gestures of teenage boredom in juxtaposition to the seriousness of the conversation. Emphasising the desensitised nature of online interaction, these actions remind the audience of the youthful nature of the characters, and the power of peer pressure in teenage years, especially to lonely and depressed Jim (Jack Finnerty).
Reynolds and Vaudrey both intensify their characters’ malicious and callous sides, thus escalating the tension in this short play to breaking point. They stress their joint sadistic enjoyment of their manipulation of Jim, and their delight in his suicidal thoughts is made uncomfortably all-too-apparent. With the audience unable to escape from the characters’ direct gaze and words, the truly vicious nature of cyber-bullying is driven home.
Finnerty gives Jim, a depressed teenager whose father abandoned him at the age of six, an emotional range that is only fully uncovered at the play’s end. Beginning with fairly whiny dialogue, his later soliloquy detailing his despair and desperation shows the depth that can be uncovered in this character.
The play was followed by a talk from psychiatric lecturer, Professor Kathryn Abel, on the changes that occur during adolescence, alongside a discussion with the cast. This scientific perspective emphasises Sick! Festival’s aim to bridge the science/art dichotomy, as Abel discussed the clinical side of depression and the psychological studies into social media.
Even though the play was first performed nearly a decade ago – millennia ago in technological terms – cyber-bullying still remains a critical issue facing teenagers. Only last summer, Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old from Leicestershire, committed suicide following the actions of online trolls. Despite the sinister subject matter, Out of Town Productions have created a poignant performance that spotlights the ever-evolving hidden underworld of social media.
Chatroom played at The Basement as part of the Sick! Festival. For more information see the Sick! Festival website.