A giant ball pit is integral to the set of Teh Internet Is Serious Business. That’s probably the most important piece of information this review will convey. In addition, actors dressed as cats, a dog, a bear and a penguin frequently parade across the stage, often gyrating to pop music. Sometimes it looks a bit like The Wind In The Willows on acid, as if Tim Berners-Lee had taken Kenneth Grahame by the hand and introduced him to the internet underworld. An inflatable willy falls from the sky and baffs about onstage while some of the characters queue up to post insults on a dead girl’s Facebook page, for the lulz. The cast also includes a sad storm trooper, a Japanese girl (who isn’t really a girl) with huge pink hair, an agoraphobic teenager from Shetland, and a schoolboy from Peckham who can make people dance by calling out a string of punctuation marks. This is cyberspace, brought to wild, rainbow-coloured life. If it sounds great, get yourself down to the Royal Court asap – you’ll love it. If it makes you feel a bit bewildered and sick, you’ll probably hate it, to be honest. Moralfag.
Tim Price’s play tells the story of Anonymous/LulzSec, an online community of hackers fighting to protect the freedom of the internet and the megalolz it provides. The movement begins almost as a joke when the Church of Scientology deletes a video of Tom Cruise that had become a hugely popular target for trolls. After meeting through an online forum, members of Anonymous post a defiant message on Youtube and hack the Church’s website, successfully disrupting its service. Then it spirals. The hidden underdogs run rings around big, bankrolled businesses: Westboro Baptist Church, the Tunisian government, Fox, the FBI. In real life (or IRL) the six core members of Anonymous might be lonely young men – but in cyberspace, they are gleeful, cheeky freedom fighters, guardians of justice and lulz.
Hamish Pirie’s direction, Chloe Lamford’s set design and James Farncombe’s lighting come together brilliantly to illustrate the world of the Internet, in which anything is allowed as long as it’s funny. As the six main characters negotiate and manipulate this world, the audience see the sheer joy of their discovery that they hold real power. In the twenty-first century you can seize power without having to leave your bedroom. Once you know someone’s email and social media password, you can control their life. For the agoraphobic Jake (online pseudonym ‘Topiary’, played by Kevin Guthrie) and the quiet, friendless schoolboy Mustafa (known as ‘Tflow’, played by Hamza Jeetooa), this knowledge is wonderfully liberating. Topiary turns the tables on a smarmy internet security expert through a gloriously cruel and catchy musical number.
Teh Internet Is Serious Business doesn’t let us forget that its fabulous world is largely created and utilised by people who are, in reality, shy, a bit awkward, maybe a bit weird, often quite racist, misogynistic and homophobic. Their jokes can make you squirm, and at times it makes for quite uncomfortable viewing. The play hints at the murky moral depths of information-sharing; these frustrated and excluded young men eventually reveal the email addresses of thousands of innocent people who were simply not tech-savvy enough to conceal them properly. None of the founding members of Anonymous know each other’s real names. The chatrooms they use are a breeding ground for paranoia, and it’s easy to lose touch with reality. And since Teh Internet Is Serious Business is about a culture built by people hiding behind masks, it also becomes an extended, self-aware joke about theatre and theatricality.
When a socially awkward hacker tries to join the core Anonymous gang, he waddles onstage as a one-man band, complete with cymbals attached to his elbows and knees. It’s a perfect physical representation of the voice of a too-keen intruder, utterly absurd but unarguably accurate. The whole cast throw themselves into the madcap nature of the production, literally – hurling themselves into the ball pit, exiting headfirst through the grey walls of the set, following Emma Martin’s choreography in sinuous dances. Sargon Yelda is hilarious as a series of clean-shaven, square-jawed slimeballs. Eileen Walsh is heartbreaking as Jake’s mum, but deliciously embarrassing as Narcotroll and Mustafa’s teacher. In the play’s final scene, Jake and Mustafa finally meet in court. Their brief dialogue is so adorable, gauche, and human that I wished there could have been more of it, until I realised that before the exuberant craziness of the past two-and-a-half hours, I wouldn’t have known how lovely it was.
Teh Internet Is Serious Business is playing the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until 25 October. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Court Theatre website. Photo by Johan Persson.