Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Review: 'Original Death Rabbit' at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 22nd January 2018

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

"The Internet Makes You Stupid" is the slogan of 1990s era humour site Back when they coined it, the idea was ridiculous. After all, the early online evangelists explained that the world wide web; would make the entirety of human knowledge accessible to everyone. This democratisation would inevitably cause society to move beyond petty ideologies and onward to a utopia of well-informed 'netizens' with a solid grasp on reality.

What the internet actually turned out to be was a fucked up mental bondage machine designed to reinforce prejudices, calcify bizarre beliefs and imprison us within echo chambers that distort the real world while mysterious algorithms try and figure out what we want to buy next. 

Rose Heiney's Original Death Rabbit gets under the skin of our dystopia, condensing the various online eras through a monologue delivered by an unnamed protagonist (played by Kimberley Nixon - who for the sake of disclosure I know personally). 

In the pre-social media 2000s, this character became a meme after inadvertently crashing a funeral while wearing a fuzzy pink bunny onesie. She explains how her photograph launched a tasteless fad of 'death rabbiting', culminating in her being doorstepped by reporters and exposed to merciless online critics who quickly deemed her an "ugly cunt". But by the time Twitter launches, her notoriety mutates into minor online celebrity and sends her spiralling down into social media addiction, anonymous trolling and a desperate need for validation.

Original Death Rabbit covers a lot of ground in 90 minutes: making time for lengthy discussion of Richard Curtis movies; whether it's possible to separate Philip Larkin's sexism and racism from his poetry; the nature of class and racial privilege; exploiting friends and family's lives for creative work; and, building up to a crescendo towards the end, the difficulties of talking about mental health.

As is repeatedly acknowledged in the play, "Mental health is a really difficult issue". It is, and Heiney treats it with empathy overlaid with a deft wit. We hear how the protagonist's father was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in his 50s, and we see in the behaviour of Nixon's character how it may be hereditary. One of my favourite things in the play is the chicken/egg conundrum between mental health and the internet: does being extremely online exacerbate (or cause) mental health problems, or do mental health problems cause people to retreat to a virtual existence?

There aren't easy answers to questions like these and Original Death Rabbit rightly doesn't attempt to provide them. What it does do is get under the skin of online life: exploring the layers of pseudonyms and characters people interact as, the endorphin rush of having a bona fide celebrity reply to you, the way that real life gently morphs into a series of potential Instagram opportunities and the rush of being able to tell someone you despise to just fucking kill yourself already jeez.

The early internet utopians never saw the Skinner box of social media and algorithm-driven content coming, but if they could have known how much future generations would be infested with brainworms I bet they'd have taken a crowbar to the ARPANET servers, Skynet-style. Or, as the play puts it,
"Thank you, Tim Berners Lee. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I bow down to you the way a dying alcoholic bows down to whoever the fuck first left grapes in a bottle too long."
So yeah, I really liked Original Death Rabbit. It's smart, funny, touching - and genuinely understands the history and culture of the internet in a way that most theatre doesn't. On top of that, Louie Whitmore's set is impressively detailed and allows you to get to know the character before she's set foot on stage. Plus, Kimberley Nixon is great - and I promise I'd say that even if didn't know her.

Watching the play you get to thinking about all the weirdo online shut-ins who spend their days endlessly shitposting. What would their lives have been like if they weren't getting their validation from numbers ticking up on a website? Did so many people hate so much before there was an online void to project their hate into? Let's face it, the internet was a mistake.

Original Death Rabbit is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 9th February. Tickets here.

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