Which is more to be feared: an unencrypted Big Brother world completely controlled by governments and corporations; or a hidden digital under world where, without the civilising constraints of social identity, anonymity fosters ruthless bullying, exploitation and lawlessness? Gareth Jandrell's powerful new play Paradoxy, specially written for the students graduating from the Oxford School of Drama, grapples with this dilemma, and with many other troubling issues raised by our transition to an increasingly online world.
This is a finely crafted play. It is constructed in scenes which are linked like web pages: the audience surfs the Dark net, slipping with one character and then another through scenes of chatrooms, bedrooms, online suicide groups, student sexploitation, online stalkers, political activism, terrorism and blackmail. It is not, however, simply a series of vignettes, but develops a strong narrative plotline. The deep web community is fighting against the introduction of the Cyber Security Bill in the UK. It seeks to maintain the independence and anonymity of its members, their freedom to behave as they wish. This might sound admirable at first; but in this shadowy world there are no limits. This is a world in which the "assassination market" is hailed as the new democracy – a politician who upsets enough people, could get their just desserts by crowdfunded slaughter.
The production is chilling and dark, like its subject-matter. The set is perfectly minimalist. A dark rectangular backdrop suggests a computer screen, on which images such as the watching eye sometimes appear, or through which the characters' disembodied faces occasionally glint, lit by their mobile phone torches. A couple of stretches of metallic painted upright boards of varying heights suggest variously, data, graphs, fences, firewalls and prison bars.
Paradoxy is a well-written play (apart from unnecessary over-use of the F-word), with some beautifully worded lines, such as "Tick here and Pandora's box is all yours". It is a much better showcase for the drama students' talents than last year's show. As the characters slip from scene to scene, we see them from different perspectives: each is seen sympathetically and unsympathetically in turn, each a self-contradictory paradox in themselves, and this gives each actor the chance to shine in different lights. It is a punchy, enthralling and disturbing production, leaving the audience with plenty to ponder on the way home. Is privacy something we should fight to defend, or is it actually already a myth?