HOME, Ovalhouse and Transform
Friday 6th November
Two minutes before curtain up, a young man sits with his back to us, facing his computer. There are recognisable sounds of shooting – clearly a computer game. No doubt devotees will recognise it from the soundscape. It’s not reality.
Four minutes later I’m checking my watch, bored. At the theatre I’d be watching the audience by now, but I’m home, watching online, all usual distractions available, including phone messages. There’s lots of them, and no guilt in looking. The audience has been invited into the show’s WhatsApp group, which starts to show signs of puzzlement. The kettle beckons too.
Fortunately, the mood breaks as the player abandons his game, mid-shootout, and talks to us. The intensely engaging Javaad Alipoor, researcher, writer and performer, outlines his research. Wondering what could possibly drive young people living with the freedoms and comforts of the West to engage in acts of murderous violence, or flee to fight in other lands He has spent time immersing himself in the dark but easily-accessible realms of the internet and their prey: frustrated, disillusioned, mainly young, mainly men, drawn to the process. Javaad’s two examples, Islamic extremism and right-wing revengeful fundamentalism, offer the disillusioned a strong justification for their anger as well as the warm embrace of belonging. Some travel a short way – perhaps to anonymously harass women on Twitter or claim widespread illegal voting. A tiny minority travel the full route, to devastating results.
Alipoor weaves together believable contemporary stories of three full-journey travellers. He goes there, so we don’t have to, displaying images, and the logic, on screen. The Obscene Publications Act and anti-terrorism laws necessitate some censorship, as well as Alipoor’s sensitivity to his audience, and I’m glad.
First appearing at Summerhall, Edinburgh in 2017, the Fringe First-awarded show won much praise for its tech-savvy, fast-paced, novel approach and hard-hitting content. Three years on, it’s less of a stand out, and also suffers – more than had expected – from the distancing effect of online streaming replacing the live theatre performance.
Part of what’s missing is physical engagement. A computer screen dilutes the impact of images. I miss being in the auditorium, the presence of others, reading the room, experiencing the communal reaction and individual variety. This issue raises challenging questions and demands debate, either through a question-and-answer session or through different characters – as an an actual play. As it is we get no insights into the minds of the three characters, whose stories are central.
The solo storyteller has become a popular style of theatre, encouraged by financial pressures and supported by technology. It needs drama. Relying on tech requires a regular upgrade to avoid a "three-year-old phone" feeling. At times it can feel like a TED talk. The storytelling style is not as new as its fans seem to think and can work, even without tech.
Our fear of a society that cannot easily distinguish between fact and fiction, reality and myth, has escalated during 2020 (even more so for those following the USA election count). The strength of this show is its ability to add to our unease.