The Bakehouse Theatre Company, The Bakehouse, 17 October-2 November 2013. Written by Kate Mulvany. Directed by Yasmin Gurreeboo.
If The Web seems too obvious a name for a play about the dark side of the Internet, then perhaps it is only because we sometimes forget that the Internet has any other side. Stories of unsuspecting teenagers lured to their murders by aged psychopaths masquerading as other unsuspecting teenagers have long become de rigueur for the tabloid news media. What makes Kate Mulvany’s creditable but flawed script more than a mere rehashing of such stories is its backdrop of a contemporary rural Australia plagued by isolation and loneliness. Mulvany’s key source material was the attempted murder in 2003 of a Manchester teen by an online acquaintance, but it might just as profitably been the disproportionately high rates of suicide in country Australia. It is, in fact, to the play’s detriment that it shies away from this essential and under-discussed issue and instead winds up looking (and sounding) uncomfortably like a telemovie for young adults about nothing much in particular.
Promisingly, The Web opens with what has the appearance of the murder of a schoolboy in a gruesome hate crime. The victim, it is revealed through a series of flashbacks, is Travis Masters (Andrew Thomas), an archetypal head boy with looks, charisma and both academic and sporting prowess to burn. We learn that his attacker, the introverted and underachieving Fred (Michael Lemmer), is a fellow pupil at St. Isidore Agricultural College. We see the boys talk for the first time, Travis sharing his iPod on which, in an early clue to his sexuality, there is a surprising amount of Beyoncé. Travis’ insistent charms leaven an unlikely friendship, which rapidly transfers from the real to the cyber world as Fred is introduced to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and all the rest. Eventually, amidst the weirdos and nutjobs with strange, enumerated names who rush to greet him with unfamiliar abbreviations, Fred makes contact with the sweetly ‘normal’ Susan (Delia Taylor). In Chapman, the fictitious country town in which The Web is set, girls are going missing, and the heart-stealingly naïve Susan presents as an obvious candidate for the same mysterious fate.
It would be unsporting to say much more about the plot here. Mulvany’s play is reliant on twists. In the end, in fact, it becomes over-reliant on them, leading to a dénouement that collapses under the weight of having too much exposition to get through. In the process, Travis, an otherwise well-crafted part, is reduced to a sneering villain, Fred to a disappointing dupe. Thomas and Lemmer both give confident, insightful performances, but neither can compensate for the way in which Mulvany seems to lose interest in the big issues that are flagged during the play’s first half. (Oddly, for a 90-minute play, there is an interval). Tellingly, both the narrative and dialogue become increasingly implausible as the play turns inwards instead of outwards, single-mindedly focussing on its own convolutions at the expense of any greater significance. The implications of the suicide of Fred’s father, for example, are never satisfactorily explored. Why transplant the Manchester story to rural Australia, I left the theatre wondering, if not to probe its unique social and psychic makeup, if not to ask the hard questions about the ongoing deprivation and disaffection which have led to such startling rates of mental illness outside our cities?
The play that we have instead is not, I should hasten to add, a bad one. Mulvany can really write, and she has a superb ear for the curious mix of overconfidence and insecurity that characterises so much of what teenage boys say to one another. Also impressive is her solution to the problem of making Fred’s online interactions engaging for the audience, which is to have his addressees present on stage and replying to him in real time. It’s neat because it works, but also because there is something distant and disconcerting about these encounters which usefully points up our unease with the idea that web-based relationships can in themselves prevent social isolation.
Manda Webber’s set, sharply circumscribed and full of surprising depths given the confines of the Bakehouse stage, is exemplary, its use of identifiably ‘rural’ elements, including corrugated iron and weathered wood, subtle but evocative. The direction, by the new-to-Adelaide Yasmin Gurreeboo, is mostly accomplished, her attention to the actors – especially their physicalities – always unobtrusively evident. Where Gurreeboo errs is in the fussy, over-directed transitions between scenes which see the actors flailing about like string puppets to the sound of a running film spool. The jerky choreography, as well as the sound effects, rapidly outstay their welcome, and I was left wondering, beyond a thematic resemblance to a series of significant book excerpts which feature throughout the play, at the point of it all. Something to do with manipulation? (A marionette’s puppeteer is called a manipulator). Something to do with old movies? (I think that’s a tune from Gone With the Wind in there somewhere). The link is, like the actors themselves, left dangling limply.
What is lacking, finally, in Mulvany’s script is ambition, not skill. Seemingly content with crafting a tricksy psychological thriller, a great opportunity is missed to dig deeper into issues of rural isolation, economic immobility, male depression, and homosexuality in small town Australia. Even what turns out to be The Web’s central concern – the dangerousness inherent in the Internet’s limitless anonymity – ultimately feels underexplored. All this, thankfully, is easy enough to forget while the play is unfolding, a fact bolstered by the strong performances and excellent design of this production. There’s more than enough to enjoy here, just less, sadly, to think about afterwards than should have been the case.