Joanna Lally talks to Phoebe Eclair-Powell about WINK, her first play, currently on at Theatre503.
Even as I write up notes from my conversation with Phoebe Eclair-Powell about her debut play WINK, I intuitively stop to look at my Facebook newsfeed, check emails, opening up multiple windows, none of which I am focusing on fully, but constantly being side-tracked from one to the next, and eventually winding back again to my original task. Of course, this repetitive pattern of Internet usage has become ingrained as a kind of generational habit; yet, as technology inevitably advances and younger age users are learning to click and swipe with supernatural ease (most likely before they can walk or write), what kind of impact will this have on modern personalities and relationships?
This is one of the central issues explored in WINK, and during our short interview Phoebe cites ‘the double-edged sword of the Internet’ as an impetus for writing the play – that is, the incredible possibility of ‘being anyone you want to be’ online, versus its power to shame and destroy. Add to that the addictive nature of social media, and the increasing grasp it has on our self-perception. In WINK, the narrative sees the lives of John Martin (Leon Williams), a good-looking and brash 27-year old school teacher, and Mark (Sam Clemmett), one of his Year 11 pupils, become irrevocably intertwined through a series of broken rules and misinterpretations. Mark, a dissatisfied teenager whose own online addictions include Facebook stalking and pornography, nurse him through recent family loss. The play begins with Mark listing to the audience the number of app notifications he has woken up to, and what pornography sites he briefly visits before getting ready for school. Mark has a slightly perverse obsession with his teacher, ‘Mr Martin,’ and deciding that it’s the teacher’s life he desires, creates a counterfeit identity – Tim Walker – an imposter and rival to the real John. Then, by intruding into his girlfriend’s privacy to accept Tim‘s friend request, John becomes more susceptible than he could possibly imagine, and falls into Mark’s trap.
This might seem like unusual territory for a female playwright, but Phoebe explains that her interest in issues surrounding mental health and young men stems from her own feeling of closeness to that ‘awkward teenager’ phase. Although an only child, she connects to and often writes young male characters, and Mark and John are amalgams from previously worked material. When I ask how where the concept of the play developed from, she attributes much of the initial inspiration to her collaborator, director Jamie Jackson, who after working together on several short plays, asked if she would write a full-length piece. The choice of subject matter, she says, stemmed from their mutual interest in mental health in young men, the idea of ‘lost boys’ and their relationship to Internet use:
“At that time [Jamie] asked me to write it, in the news there was a boy who had killed himself because he had been bullied online – there was very much a spate of these stories that had happened in the press – and I just thought that it was really, really terrifying. That you could be so embarrassed, so ashamed, and made to feel shame as a teenager,that you’d take your own life – because it’s not worth living, it’s not worth going through.”
Spurred on by the impulse from Jackson, and a broader awareness of what was (and still is) taking place in contemporary online culture, she carried out research by sending out questionnaires relating to Internet use to male friends in their early to mid-twenties, and to their younger brothers. Phoebe has also drawn on her own experience of online addiction; “I am so addicted to Facebook, and Instagram and Twitter. I actually can’t stop and I really hate it within myself.” Like many other people, Phoebe uses social media as a means of self-organisation; “It’s my diary, it lets me know what I’m doing, like my own PA. Which is weird, especially when it’s an advertising tool really – it’s not actually you in control.”
We then discuss the realisation that suddenly we find ourselves having to fill a space that never used to require filling, and somehow now that space becomes full of screens, and the compulsion to click, scroll and swipe constantly. Following a two-year long dramaturgical process, firstly through the Old Vic New Voices and later as part of Theatre503’s 503Futures programme, what has emerged from Eclair-Powell and Jackson’s mutual concerns with the issues above, is an intensely engaging drama that exercises its own compulsion to view and be viewed. The production provides a sharp, clinical observation of its characters. This is highlighted in Bethany Wells’ set design – a large reflective screen is draped across the stage, onto which Mark and John project both their online and real selves. The lighting is equally illuminating, but one of the truly distinctive features of this production is the direction of movement, accompanied by a riveting musical score, composed by Max Pappenheim. Along with the rest of the creative team, Jackson has moulded the distinctive visual and sonic nature of the play, so that it becomes almost interactive, almost immersive, but not in the way we might typically understand with certain performance trends today. The movement coincides perfectly with the pace of the writing. Interestingly, the only stage direction given is that the production should use both sound and movement. Jamie, who joins our conversation roughly halfway through, explains that there was no need to superimpose these elements on a preconceived text; once they had decided that the production would make use of these media, Phoebe was able to create a rhythm in her writing that would drive the scenes of high drama and tension where music, movement and text combine.
As John and Mark become entangled in a dance of online personas and communication, this is reflected in the choreography that emphasizes their physical relation to one another. Rather than representing the motions of web browsing through having technological devices as props for WINK, their associated actions are instead buried into the quick-paced language of the play, and the constant clicking and scrolling that Phoebe alludes to, creates its own physical language. There are moments that capture a feeling of tenderness, possibly mixed with a confused sexuality that passes between the two. In one particular sequence, repeated several times, they link hands, before Williams lifts Clemmett off the ground, holding him at a horizontal so that their bodies create an axis, before commencing a slow turn across the stage, elegantly done by both performers. Later on, as the characters approach a crucial point of collision, the intermittent pulsation of words and movement hurtles the audience through the narrative. The alternating aggression and tenderness of the actors’ physical and vocal deliveries (often their lines are simultaneous or overlapping) gives way to an enthralling ninety minutes on stage. In this time, WINK distills the virtual world of its characters’ lives/predicaments, which quickly begin to seep into one another, an act of interfacing.
There is an unabashed irreverence in Eclair-Powell’s characterisations that is both startling and enjoyable. However, while the play is in many ways beautifully conceived (and incredibly funny in places) it does not shy away from the nastier elements threatening to break through the surface. More importantly, it is not just ‘another Internet play.’ Phoebe tells me that several critics’ reviews have tended to introduce WINK as such, although most of them do see through to the heart of the play, which is about loss and disconnection. However, she states, what WINK shares with other plays on this subject is that there is ‘always something more going on’ and in this way it is almost impossible not to reference the huge infiltration that it has made into our lives. As a result the question becomes how to plot around technology “when you can short-circuit so many things that would have been drama.” In her opinion, this presents one of the major challenges for contemporary playwrights. Her hope, then, is to incorporate something of what is going on in society at the moment that addresses this part of ‘our story.’ This, Phoebe says, perhaps means that the play will date quickly, althoughit is not an issue that particularly worries her: “I was just interested in trying to pinpoint something that felt like it was happening around this time.”
Bold and unflinching, WINK explores the magical escapism of online identity –the choice to become ‘whoever you want’ – alongside both its comical and sinister repercussions in the ‘real’ world. While the particular lifespan of her first play may be limited by the evolving force of its own subject matter – although it deserves to run again and be seen by many more audiences – it will certainly keep touch with the modern tragedy where the feeling of connectivity is undermined by an isolation from reality: the final image with which WINK logs off.
WINK runs at Theatre503 in Battersea until 4 April 2015. For more details see the website.