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At one point in this sugar-rush of a show, a ‘vlogger’ gives tips on “how to be popular in high school”. He looks straight into the camera and earnestly instructs his impressionable, young viewers to “make everyone else feel sad: that’s how you become popular in high school”. Such Machiavellian advice would probably seem utterly unbelievable…if it wasn’t verbatim.
Written and performed by Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke, Public Domain wears it’s inspirations on its sleeve: “it’s like Black Mirror but real, and set to music.” Using real tweets, news stories, and YouTube videos for all their lines and lyrics, the song writing pair have created an anthology of ear worms that aim to portray the realities of digital life. Streamed live from the Southwark Playhouse’s ‘The Little’, Public Domain packs a punch – but it’s hardest hits are aimed at the man who orchestrated this online dystopia.
Throughout the show, the pair routinely return to chastise Mark Zuckerberg (the founder and CEO of Facebook) and his wife, Priscilla. Whether parodying the Zuck’s appearance in front of Congress, or evoking the pair’s cloying PR stints on US cable news, Public Domain consistently points the finger of blame at Zuckerberg, juxtaposing his obfuscation of blame with all the horrors he’s caused. In particular, the pair latch onto a single line offered by Priscilla in an interview: “you want to remove anything that can hurt your child”. From the show’s point-of-view, everything online can hurt your child.
Really, nothing is safe from Forristal and Clarke’s sharp satire: not the tech-illiteracy of our leaders (“say I am sending an email over the WhatsApp”), nor the phony intimacy of content creators (“I haven’t even told my family about this yet, guys!”), not even the self-propagating nature of social media (“how to be an influencer!”). The pair lampoon such a wide cross-section of online culture that they sometimes teeter under the weight of their own ambition; like any song cycle, there is the occasional weak link. For instance, their parody of ‘Inside the Life of a Facebook Moderator’ – there’s only so many times a person can hear “there’s boogers on the desk” be sung, but the pair more than make up for it with their charisma and chemistry.
Moreover, beneath the humour and catchy music, there’s almost a meta-commentary at work: what’s more surreal, the heightened reality of musical theatre or the filtered reality of the internet? No matter how over-the-top or performative the actors get, the real-life lyrics keep up, reaffirming that nothing is stranger than the goings-on online. Last year, the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma revealed how we’re all being manipulated and exploited by Big Tech – Public Domain reiterates that message, but with theatrical sensibilities and plenty of synth-pop.
In fact, the stand-out of the show is when the pair abate and reveal the effects of this exploitation. In ‘Does Anyone Else’, Forristal laments on how “a lot of us are feeling a little broken down”, and is joined by members of the public singing along with this message of isolation. For a minute, the synth-pop eases, creating a musical emptiness that carries the ballad; a quiet moment of forlornness in the otherwise hyperactive veneer. There is a rich irony here – how we can all be so unified in feeling so alone – but, like every other aspect of this timely show, the pair deliver it beautifully.
Public Domain is available online until the 16th January. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website.