Teh Internet is Serious Business (typo deliberate) at the Royal Court is a really exciting, dynamic production about collaborative hacktivism. Anonymous, LulzSec and 4Chan are all included in this show that blurs fact with fiction as it seeks to reflect the good and the sinister about lives lived online.
The writing from Tim Price focuses on Mustafa and Jake, (based on real-life former Anonymous hackers Mustafa Al-Bassam and Jake Davis) two young boys living in different parts of the UK. Each is struggling with meaningful connection in their real lives but find excitement and alliances online as they become deeply involved in the headline-grabbing collectives Anonymous and LulzSec.
Initially the adventures are electric and the party-like atmosphere and crazy avatars of life online are vividly brought to life with surreal but superb direction from Hamish Pire and a vivid production design from Chloe Lamford.
A Socially Awkward Penguin parties with Advicedog and Grumpy Cat in a giant plastic ball pit. A Condescending Willy Wonka appears with patronising comments before immediately vanishing. 16 year-old Harajuku girls play on scooters and suck on lollipops before quickly rattling off extended and intricate sequences of computer code.
Mustafa and Jake are like modern Dorothys as they stumble wide-eyed through this colourful, crazy landscape where the freedom and excitement is an intoxicating lure away from their drab, distressing and grim lives in the real world.
The party online is "endless lols." Crashing government websites, hacking confidential information for giant data dumps that anyone can access and going head-on with organisations obsessed with control such as the Scientologists and Westboro Baptist Church.
The pace of the play is frenetic and the febrile atmosphere is supported with some excellent use of song and dance. Tunes such as "I Use the Same Password" are hilarious yet poke fun at the stupidity in all of us who aren't computer geniuses and use the same password again and again, thinking that we're safe. (Mental note: change password).
Then a cast of cheerleaders will suddenly appear as huge lines of code are being created, moving in contemporary dance choreography as the characters spout endlessly about closed brackets and open brackets, making the banal seem sensual, emotive, and lending code with a certain kind of beauty all of its own.
But Teh Internet does not ignore its dark side - and I don't just mean the Sad Stromtrooper avatar that mopes around the stage. Trolling the Facebook page of a schoolgirl who dies and the demands for girls online to prove their gender by posting date-stamped pictures of their breasts hint at the sinister side of unchecked human behaviour.
But as the competition ferments amongst the hacktivists, the targets become bigger and the stakes, of course, get higher as the authorities start to pull back the masks of the hackers and close in on them.
However it seems the play isn't for everyone. Two people walked out during the evening I was watching - one in the first half, one in the second. If your preference is for plays with deep character development, linear narrative and simplistic staging, this isn't the play for you. Teh Internet is Serious Business is garish and the chaos on stage is a deliberate dramatization of the lack of rules, even the mess, online.
The production is so high energy that it almost inevitably loses steam in the final section and the last 30 minutes does drag on a bit. You feel a little numb from all the insanity and the lack of investment in the main characters means that the personal stakes for the hackers don't really feel pressing. 15 minutes could easily have been chopped from the play's 2h35min running time without impacting the message and would have sharpened up the finale.
Nevertheless I'm not as critical of this as a few of the audience members I heard muttering. If you're going to produce a show this eccentric, this bold, you've got to commit to it and this play goes hell for leather in creating such a mad, bad and electric landscape.
I loved Teh Internet for its boldness and its insight, though I did go home straight after and start diversifying my passwords.
The real-life Mustafa and Jake recently joined two other former Anonymous hackers on the Royal Court for an in-conversation event, the first time they have appeared together since their convictions for hacking. The conversation was an eye-opening one and you can see the recording of this on the Royal Court website.
Royal Court Theatre, London to October 25, 2014
All pictures by Johan Persson
1. Yuyu Rau (Anonymous), Natalie Dew (Anxiety Cat), Sargon Yelda (Anonymous), Amir Giles (Anonymous), Ferdinand Kingsley (Anonymous), Kae Alexander (Kayla), Sarah Goulding (Anonymous), Nathaniel Martello-White (Anonymous), Faith Prendergast (Anonymous), Lanre Malaolu (Anonymous)
2. Kerr Logan (pwnsauce), Ferdinand Kingsley (Tuxedo), Sargon Yelda (Anon), Eileen Walsh (Narcotroll), Kevin Guthrie (Jake)
3. Hamza Jeetooa (Mustafa), Nathaniel Martello-White (Sabu), Natalie Dew (AV Unit), Kae Alexander (Kayla), Kerr Logan (Pwnsauce), Kevin Guthrie (Jake)