This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub
In an era when hackers have ransacked Sony and TalkTalk for everything they have, when the grinning face of Anonymous seems to claim responsibility for cyberattacks on a daily basis, when 11 million documents are leaked from Mossac Fonseca in the biggest data breach in history, and when Amazon tells me that because I bought a DVD of Trainspotting I might like One Hundred Years Of British Trains, one might think it was time for a play about the evils of the internet. It probably is, but Darknet – the third collaboration between writer Rose Lewenstein and director Russell Bender – is certainly not that play.
Part Steve Jobs biopic and part gritty BBC3 drama, Lewenstein’s play – and Bender’s production – is a sprawling mess of incoherent plotting, dissonant shifts in tone, distracting staging, and accents so well-travelled they probably have more passport stamps than Ranulph Fiennes. Lewenstein forefronts a debate about privacy rights, corporate transparency, and individual autonomy, but it is never articulated with subtlety, merely plonked in front of the audience confrontationally and inexpertly developed. There is perhaps something tender touched upon about love through a digital medium, a la Spike Jonze’s Her, but this fades rapidly into bland cliché in the second half. An audience member could have walked out after 15 minutes, and left with much the same appreciation of the issues at hand as someone that battled through the full 120.
Darknet is set in a quasi-dystopian world. It isn’t a fully-fledged society like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, but a recognisable near-future formed around a single, woolly idea: the digitalisation of currency. People’s bank balance is determined by the volume of their online presence, by the data they share. Those who retweet more cat memes have more cash, in short. Two storylines are mashed around each other: Jamie (Jim English) is a surly 16 year-old hacker intent on changing the world from his bedroom, whilst Allen (Gyuri Rossi) is an e-cigarette-smoking bigshot at Octopus, the Paypal of the future.
An imprisoned master-hacker (Naveed Khan), a Romanian call girl/history of art student (Greer Dale-Foulkes), a heroin-addicted single mother (Rosie Thompson) and her 14 year-old daughter (Ella McLoughlin) are all splurged haphazardly into the mix, as the action shifts rapidly between the suburbs of south London and the sliding doors and corridors of some corporate American office-cum-thought garden. The contents of a small Apple Store – tablets, smartphones and laptops – are used throughout as characters duck and dive into cyberspace repeatedly.
The multi-roling cast strive to imbue Lewenstein’s sterile dialogue with emotion, but there is little they can achieve when their characters are so stunningly shallow and the script wanders aimlessly between tongue-in-cheek self-parody and heart-on-sleeve social drama. Bender’s direction doesn’t reach the heights of slickness its sophistication demands, and feels effortful as a result. The tornado of sound, video and lighting – although evidently proficiently executed – is more distracting than anything else.
Mila Sanders’ design is obviously going for a sleek, space-age sexiness, but the backdrop mosaic of TV screens and the endlessly shifting stage furniture – a minimalist affair of blue archways and stools – feels distinctly shabby, not to mention distracting. Darknet suffers from the same paradoxical problem as many dystopian futures on stage do: for all its iPads and Macbooks, it plays more like a lost episode of Tomorrow’s World than a digestible portrait of the near-future. Perhaps theatre is simply not the medium for such visual dissections of the digital age after all.