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Review: Public Domain, online (Southwark Playhouse)

Public Domain is a breathtaking, visceral, high energy production concerning the human, personal and social effects of online platforms. Facebook, YouTube, Tik Tok and Instagram are names synonymous with 21st century life, and Public Domain turns up the volume on their impact in our daily lives, delivering a production of operatic proportions.  The themes are huge: it’s modern day Greek tragedy, examining how we behave online in an endeavour to ameliorate loneliness, foster friendship, gain followers, viewers, subscribers and love. Visually, the piece swings very effectively between two formats: the action is partly played on the theatre stage, but…

Summary

Rating

Unmissable!

Public Domain is a 21st century musical of operatic dimensions. Musically accomplished, intelligent and polished, the production skilfully guides us through the highs and lows, the joys and controversies of social media. A must see production.

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Public Domain is a breathtaking, visceral, high energy production concerning the human, personal and social effects of online platforms. Facebook, YouTube, Tik Tok and Instagram are names synonymous with 21st century life, and Public Domain turns up the volume on their impact in our daily lives, delivering a production of operatic proportions.  The themes are huge: it’s modern day Greek tragedy, examining how we behave online in an endeavour to ameliorate loneliness, foster friendship, gain followers, viewers, subscribers and love.

Visually, the piece swings very effectively between two formats: the action is partly played on the theatre stage, but then a screen is used to plonk our performers in Facebook and YouTube pages. Director Adam Lenson has juggled stage and screen superbly, really capturing the energy of live theatre. Some of the stage scenes are introduced, as it were, with edited news clips and interviews, other times the screen is splashed with images, like stickers in a notebook. Lighting designer Matt Daw has done a wonderful job painting different canvases for each scene, adjusting it for every mood. At one point we view the show from within a swirling lens, which is both ethereal and beautiful.

Musically, it’s almost Hamilton-like in its pace, movement and intensity.  Of an equally high standard are the multi-talented Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke, the deliciously adroit all-acting all-singing stars of the show. Both performers lack nothing musically nor theatrically, and through them the production achieves amazing standards of acting and singing. They are utterly engaging, full of expression and energy, successfully taking us through the gamut of 21st century expressions; the desires, emotions, expectations and disappointments – they’re so not 20th century.  In one particularly impressive scene, Clarke uncannily portrays Mark Zuckerburg, whilst Forristal brilliantly swaps between several Senators from the Joint Commerce & Judiciary Committee, interviewing Zuckerburg on privacy issues.

Not a beat is missed in this production, nor an issue arising from social media. After being introduced to the YouTube channels of Swaggyman and Millie Fitness, our performers sing a duet sharing with us how they “just wanted to create a community.” They came here to meet “friends of our friends” and “just like that, we felt a little less alone.” In another scene Swaggyman tells us “the last thing I want to be is irrelevant.”  Clearly, we can all relate to such feelings.

The show takes us through so much of what we love and hate in these social platforms. Inane advice from a YouTube channel entitled “how to be popular in High School” recommends “just make everyone feel bad”, whilst another page on “how to be an influencer” tells us “gone are the days when you can just put in an emoji.”

Certain themes are repeated in the production from different angles, both from the perspective of the social media user and the owners. In a Mr and Mrs Zuckerberg duet, they sing “I love you as a viewer, I love you as a follower, I love you as a subscriber, you guys are my friends.” Once again, this highlights the heady mix of social media insincerity and the online imitation of authenticity. In the same duet the Zuckerberg couple sing “The future is going to be better than today.” Dare I say, this has all the same sinister suggestions as ‘Tomorrow belongs to me’ from Cabaret?

It would be way too easy to dismiss a production addressing social media with “no, not another commentary” or “we all know about social media”, but the phenomenon has become a huge part of our lives, no more so than in the age of Covid, and is constantly evolving. It’s where we socialise, keep up to date, inform ourselves and share public opinion. It has become the platform of personal manifestos, fake news, shopping and the making and breaking of friendships. This is a superlative, relevant production. Congratulations to all who have put it together.

Written and performed by: Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke
Directed by: Adam Lenson
Technical Producer: Christian Czornyj
Video Design/Associate Director: Matt Powell
Movement Director: George Lyons
Music Production and Supervision by: Joe & Nikki Davison for Auburn Jam Music

Public Domain was streamed via Southwark Playhouse. Further streaming dates will be announced on their website below.

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