This is the way it’s going to be from now on. Sitting on your sofa in pairs or alone watching a screen. While Theatre Uncut’s new online project was in the works before the coronavirus outbreak, it feels like a test case for the potential and limitations of digital storytelling.
Theatre Uncut’s model is built around the sharing of stories, commissioning new work that is then made available rights-free to be performed by anyone around the world. Bubble, the new play by Kieran Hurley, takes the form of a collaborative digital project connecting universities across the world. Streaming on Facebook this week, it is performed by a group of performers who have never met in person.
Hurley’s play takes place entirely in digital space. Just under an hour long, it tells the story of university lecturer William Barrett, who refers to his students as a “bunch of giggling sluts”. The situation quickly spirals with many students demanding an apology. As what is soon dubbed “slut-gate” gets picked up by campus feminist groups and student journalists, the conversation rapidly evolves to encompass questions of free speech, hate speech, safe spaces and no-platforming.
A notorious alt-right speaker is due to give a talk on campus and that further polarises the debate. While some lecturers abhor the idea of preventing him from speaking no matter how objectionable his views, many students believe that spreaders of hate have no place at their institution. The play unpacks the capacity of words to hurt. Tempers intensify. A male ally gets offended by being excluded from an all-female space. One student’s incel rhetoric becomes increasingly alarming. One of the students at the receiving end of the slur is unbothered and just wants the whole thing to stop.
Bubble explores the way in which the online arena can unhelpfully amplify and simplify debate, stripping away nuance. Co-directors Hannah Price and Emma Callander have the characters read the words that would presumably be written on screen, emojis and all. These are supplemented with outsize graphics, words spraying across the screen like the ‘kapows’ in an old episode of Batman, floating aubergine emojis popping up as people talk. Windows open and overlap.
This method of storytelling presents a number of dramatic challenges. Though Hurley captures the tone of a lot of online discussion, people don’t write in the same way they speak, and the dialogue sometimes falls awkwardly between two stools. Each character encapsulates a different facet of the debate. They exist only in relation to the argument, which often saps the play of dramatic urgency. In its efforts to reflect an array of viewpoints, it feels too neat, too careful.
A further level of disconnect is created by the lack of specificity. The events of the play are supposed to be taking place at the same university and yet the way in which the piece has been made, with a global pool of performers, works against that.
Despite the internationalism of the project and the novel way in which it has been made, it feels quite fragmented and flat at times, as much a well-constructed essay as a play.
It also suffers slightly from being released at precisely the time a large proportion of people on the planet are shifting the way they communicate with one another, the digital supplanting in-person communication.
Hurley’s play opens up the wider question of what theatre is and can be, and perhaps isn’t. Bubble is a collaborative act performed for an audience, but ironically doesn’t capture the online experience as vividly as something like Jasmine Lee-Jones’ Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner did in front of a live audience. Bubble dips its toes in the water, but refrains from wading in.