The Vaults, London – until 10 March 2019
You might think twice about going back online after watching Theatre Témoin’s Feed. You might, but you probably won’t – which is exactly the point this darkly humorous and deeply unsettling show sets out to make. (In fact the company are so sure we’ll all be straight back on Twitter the minute it’s over that they end by encouraging us to use it to spread the word.) We all know the internet is manipulating us: it’s full of glossy Instagram posts, clickbait headlines, fake news and targeted ads, all focused on getting our money, time, attention and more. We know it, and yet we somehow can’t seem to stop exposing ourselves to it.
Devised by the cast (Jonathan Peck, Louise Lee, Esmee Marsh and Yasmine Yagchi) and directed by Ailin Conant, Feed takes a pretty everyday occurrence to extreme lengths. Journalist Kate uses a photo of a dead Palestinian boy, taken by her girlfriend Clem, on an article that goes viral. Make-up vlogger Mia sees the photo and posts an emotional tribute to the boy, which turns out to be great for her follower count. Soon, egged on by creepy troll-like SEO specialist Tim – who has distinctly un-humanitarian motives of his own – Mia’s going to ever more extreme and gory lengths to keep her followers interested, while Kate is determined to use her new-found platform to further her own causes, whatever the cost. Only “technophobe” Clem is able to see the damage being done, but she’s powerless to stop it – or is she?
Not a show for the faint-hearted (or the weak-stomached), Feed first dares us and then straight out asks us to stop watching, and yet nobody looks away. In the opening scene, Tim demonstrates how A/B testing works through dance – it makes sense at the time, I promise – and we laugh along, not realising what this means: that we’re constantly feeding the machine all the information it needs to keep harming us. By the time that realisation finally dawns, we’re past the point of no return and spiralling rapidly towards the play’s surreal and disturbing climax.
This is even more unsettling given that the clues are all there, long before the chainsaw comes out and everything turns to pandemonium. Live sidebar ads for everything from toothpaste to Christian Aid are slowly tweaked to complement the on-stage action. An emoji-riddled online conversation between Mia and Tim is spoken aloud, exposing the glaring lack of actual words used. And a number of scenes freeze, rewind and repeat several times with small tweaks – almost as if the actors are experimenting to see which version gets the best response…
Theatre Témoin are known for tackling urgent topical issues in their own signature style, and Feed is no exception. It’s a cleverly devised piece that proves just how easily we can be manipulated by invisible forces into saying, doing, or buying things that we might never have thought about before. And it might just make you stop and think about how much time you spend online.
But then again, it might not.