Emily Vanderploeg was at the Taliesin in Swansea to catch Theatre Témoin’s FEED, a vicious and uproarious takedown of our modern addiction to mobile phones.
It is unusual to be as aware of the audience as of the performers when watching a play, and yet this grotesquely funny production by Theatre Témoin relies on such a symbiosis. FEED brings to life our lives lived online, making the virtual physical, from intrusive pop-up ads to an actual troll, forcing the audience to confront their habits with a curious mix of amusement and red-faced shame.
I found my own reactions to the events of FEED on stage both obvious and curious – I know I spend too much time on my phone and looking to the Internet for validation and amusement, but I also take comfort in the fact that I remember what life was like before when I never thought about a computer in the course of a day, and I think confidently, if unrealistically, that I could go back to that way of living happily. And yet, my attention was drawn to the half of the audience populated by a group of secondary schoolers, by my estimation Year 9 or 10, and I couldn’t help but wonder how this play was being processed by them. Certainly, they were laughing uproariously and with amused shock at the honest and familiar vulgarity, presented in caricature, of the play’s stock characters: a YouTube star, an Alt-Right troll/hacker, a clickbait journalist, and a technophobe. But did they feel the same sense of dread that the older members of the audience seemed to be feeling? Were they aware of the peril we may be in? Contrast this with another audience member, seemingly from a generation or two before my own, who, engrossed in the performance, did not notice for quite some time that her mobile phone was ringing loudly in her bag. Normally, I would turn towards the noise with deep irritation and scorn – at least this is still considered a grave faux pas at the theatre and cinema. And yet, in this instance, I sat for several minutes thinking it was part of the play, waiting with a mix of excitement and anxiety to find out what the consequence of the ringing phone would be.
Credit is due to the energetic performances of the four actors, Louise Beresford, Esmee Marsh, Yasmine Yagchi, and Jonathan Peck in the play by Theatre Témoin, the latter of whom acted as gatekeeper and puppetmaster to the audience, opening the play by breaking the fourth wall. It was a clever way of dropping us into the action with an unexpected jerk of a leash – we were in it whether we liked it or not. Meanwhile, the four characters gave us each a person to identify with, the preferred choice being a sensible artist and dismissive-of-technology, Clem. And yet one had to admit that they might also be a little, or even a lot, like any or all of the others.
Rather than the acrobatics or more tactile performance one might expect from “physical theatre”, the actors in FEED embodied the essence of technical glitches and at times repulsive sensuality, evoking the inevitable mixed feelings about addiction to technology (it’s bad, but do I really care enough to stop?). As the play progressed, however, this became the inadvertent position of both voyeur and participant, as both characters and audience were ostensibly thrown to the wolves. Director Ailin Conant and playwrights Eve Leigh and Erin Judge have created a play that straddles these discordant, split personalities delicately – there is a constant sense that the actors and everyone in the theatre are at momentary risk of losing control. The manipulations of algorithms and the people behind them are exposed by the threat of the machines taking over; our humanity hovering on the precipice of being obsolete – an odd thought, sitting in a theatre with teenagers eating Maltesers on a Thursday night.
Without giving away the ending of FEED, the Theatre Témoin play concludes with a sense of uneasy relief. We had nearly gone too far, only to be saved by the house lights and the smiles of the actors taking a bow to well-deserved applause. But as a teacher myself, I wished that the entire audience had been filled with school groups – please, make this required viewing for today’s youth! Even if they appeared primarily titillated by the swearing and sight gags like a troll’s foot-long green penis, and upon exiting the theatre swiftly pulled out their mobile phones, there was a sense that a service had been done by the relentless and energetic insistence not just to look, but to engage, passing popcorn around the auditorium when many of us instinctively tried to watch between our fingers.
For more information on the tour dates of FEED, you can visit Theatre Témoin’s website.
Emily Vanderploeg has reviewed other theatre productions for Wales Arts Review.