As technology becomes more ubiquitous and central in our lives, science fiction and social comment are increasingly colliding in art. Charlie Brooker's TV project Black Mirror darkly satirises and extrapolates many aspects of modern society and Shepard Fairey's street art campaign, Andre the Giant Has a Posse, known for its 'Obey' slogan has now ironically transformed into a socially binding fashion item. Lauren Jackson's new play, String, is part of this growing movement, dealing with our reliance on social media and positing its developing autonomy.
"The String is the Thing", the central phrase that is repeated endlessly, and self-deprecatingly, throughout the play refers to a very physical metaphor in the centre of the stage. A large sculpture of string laced with banal titbits of people's lives, representing the stream (or string) of connecting information presented on social media. The characters become increasingly entwined ("The String is a mysterious Thing"), playing the metaphor to its conclusion. The theme of control relies on Lacanian notions of desire, where the Thing is the unattainable object of desire that the subject revolves around but can never acquire. The ephemeral nature of social media constructs glittering immediacy while being just out of reach, and our desire for it controls us. Lacan saw the Thing as terrible, twisted and disgusting, but inescapable. Jackson sees parallels in our use of technology, positing a surreal situation that echoes her vision of ludicracy.
Fictional scenes involving the sculpture alternate with 'real' commentaries on the writing of the play. One of the actors argued with a fictionalised writer over the nature of the play, its motives, and its deliberate avoidance of student play stereotypes (which it then very cleverly fell into anyway). Jackson labelled the sections as deliberately confusing, stacking up several layers of 'meta', but all the same, they actually were confusing. Perhaps they also pointed towards the lunacy of social media by evoking general pretension, but the scenes' immaturity really fell flat. On the other hand, the confusion served as a genius structural device: the discussion scenes - which had strikingly good light design in the tiny Burton Taylor - annoyed and bewildered me, but threw the 'sculpture' scenes into sharp contrast, and made them supremely enjoyable.
At 45 minutes it's a bite-sized play, very well-suited for an after dinner snack. The length has affected its composition and hinges on its frantic nature, obvious in the acting and writing. Jackson has included a lot of great ideas and concepts, individual and creative criticisms of social media and internet culture. This might be an attempt at reflecting the fast-paced, instantaneous nature of receiving information through social media, but I think it is much more reminiscent of an well-researched, but rushed, tutorial essay. Jackson's great ideas surface and disappear in an instant, not fully explored. They are all interesting and important, and leave the audience overwhelmed but privy to the writer's intelligence. More traditional plays use longer forms and obfuscating devices to slowly reveal the themes so that they are bound up with the narrative. String is too short to use such techniques but also tries to address too much. Although Jackson's intended central message becomes obvious in the final 'sculpture' scene, it does not seem clear that Jackson fully knows what that is, and hurriedly leapt on her string metaphor as a means of escape.
But the frantic acting exuded a vibrant energy often lost in student plays aiming for a needlessly mature style. Adham Smart, as Jack the sculptor and the accusatory actor of the 'real' scenes, really stole the show, appearing charismatic in both roles. His ability to appear naturally as Jack was extremely important in the intimate setting and won the audience with an amiable, storyteller's lilt. James Tibbles as Joe, the awkward stalker, Ellie Shaw as May, the privately-funded public project's principle sponsor, and Jessie See as Laptop Girl, the fictional writer, felt less experienced and comfortable, leaping too quickly to emotional extremes. However, as the play descended into farce, very capably managed by both writer and director, this nervous energy shone through brilliantly. The performance of the conclusion, and accompanying shock, curiously melted between the real and surreality, fairly remarkable in student performances. As the play wound up to its close, the ensemble really came together, which made me wonder if perhaps first night nerves had taken hold of the cast.
The studied and well-rounded quality of the writing was very impressive in a student author. Combined with her direction, and the intermittently gripping performances of the cast, the play was vibrant, frantic, high-energy and very funny. I look forward to hearing more from Jackson's sector.