Saturday, 19 January 2013

Non-review: Rough Cuts - Bytes

Not a review as this is the return of the Royal Court's occasional series of rehearsed readings and works-in-progress, Rough Cuts. This time around, established playwrights have been given the remit of touching on issues of technology and the internet. Jack Bence, Mandeep Dhillon, Malachi Kirby, Rebecca Night, Sarah Woodward and Al Weaver perform the four shorts collected as Bytes, performed in the Wilson Studio - a small rehearsal room behind Sloane Square tube station.

Alia Bano starts us off with a play set in a high school, where a handsome new teacher (Weaver) catches the eye of one of his students (Night.) There's a familiar story of accusation and rumours to be told but modern technology gives it a new twist: The girl suddenly has a naked photo of Mr Burns she says he sent her, but this happens to be just after she learned how to hack into locked Facebook accounts.

DC Moore then goes full sci-fi as a young woman with no memories (Night again - she's kept pretty busy in all of these) is questioned by a frustratingly vague official (Woodward.) It turns out the girl was found in a state of stasis, buried in a pod for reasons her discoverers aren't clear on. Their conversations gradually reveal how long she's been "sleeping" there and the kind of dystopian future Moore has envisioned here.

Director Charlotte Gwinner has arranged the space in the round, with the actors sitting among the audience when not needed in a scene. For Penelope Skinner's offering she has the actors sit in the middle facing out at the audience, to accentuate the confrontational nature of the scene: We're in the world of online comments, in this instance under YouTube videos, and I wouldn't be surprised if this is a kind of verbatim theatre taking real comments out of context - if it's not, Skinner's got the style down pat. The kind of attack people make casually online is instantly recognisable but its nastiness is exposed by having it spoken out loud, Bence giving particular vitriol to a scene demonising Heather Mills; so is the ridiculousness that surfaces so often, with Weaver's very funny interjections blaming everything on the Illuminati.

Finally Nick Payne gives us a couple (Night and Weaver) whose absorption into their various communications devices leaves them completely unable to actually interact with each other in real life. It's often funny and nicely performed but I felt like the point was made very quickly with little to add in the later scenes.

Rough Cuts plays often seem to stay rough - I think the upcoming The Victorian in the Wall will be the first one I've seen as a work-in-progress to make it out of development hell into a full production. But if there's a further life for any of this quartet, I'd be happy for either of the first two playlets to get developed further. Skinner's and Payne's pieces don't feel like they have that much more to unearth, but Bano's takes a story that admittedly feels a bit formulaic, and gives it an injection of freshness; I feel like there could be an interesting little stage mystery around whether the teacher's been framed or not, and if so whether it was an accident. Also, given the teacher's naked photo sees him posing with a rugby team, with the ball hiding his genitals, a familiar enough pose from students rather than an overtly sexual one, it potentially opens up an unexplored area about the disparity between how people think of their own nudity online and elsewhere in life.

Meanwhile Moore, who seems fond of playing with different genres, takes on another one that turns out to take a different route to the general theme of modern dependence on technology, and with the right staging could make for an unsettling evening's theatre.

Rough Cuts - Bytes by Alia Bano, DC Moore, Nick Payne and Penelope Skinner is booking until the 22nd of January at the Royal Court's Wilson Studio (returns only.)

Running time: 50 minutes straight through.

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