Elinor Cook’s latest play is about the potential for social media to precipitate social upheaval. Set in a fictional conflict zone – with an oppressive regime on one side, and violent insurrectionists on the other – it is about the chaos that ensues when a video capturing institutional violence goes viral. The play follows a number of different characters whose lives are altered by this event – the man who filmed and uploaded the video, a woman whose murdered mother is forgotten amidst the media fanfare, and a wealthy British woman who, after watching the video, is determined to donate money to help in the region.
The first of the play’s problems is that these narrative threads are too disconnected and often also too self-involved – for instance the potential donor’s back-story develops into a kidnapping plot that has tenuous links to the central narrative. The limited cohesion between various subplots is highlighted by an unsuccessful and somewhat incoherent attempt to merge them in the final scene – a give away as to how unintentional the disjunctures are.
The second issue is that the regime in question is only very faintly sketched – it is a totalitarian state that apparently tortures and murders its citizens, but beyond that we learn very little. This would be fine were it not for the similarities between the events the play enacts and the real life events of the Arab Spring. The cynicism behind what is inferred – that not only governments, but charitable organisations and grassroots movements manipulate social media to achieve violent ends – is in vital need of some legitimating. Of course what is presented is a fictional scenario – but when the parallels are so striking, there is an ethical obligation to at least provide enough information so that distinctions can be drawn.
The final issue with the play is that it lacks tonal variation. It is incessantly front-footed – with very little relief, or at least gradation. The result is that this barrage of rape scenes, mutilations, kidnappings and muggings can at times – alarmingly – prove boredom inducing.
Leaving aside the play’s flaws – there are some commendable aspects to this production. Mark Howland’s design is simple and effective. And the cast are admirably committed – with Anjana Vasan and Susan Brown in particular giving strong performances. Even the play itself might be commended for touching on important themes – the power of social media, the relationship between social change and violence, and the role of charities within a culture that is clearly too dependent upon them. But whatever concessions are made – it remains a play that is desperately in need of a clearer focus, a little sensitivity regarding its chosen subject matter, and a deal more nuance.