The ubiquity of screens is a commonplace these days, something we've largely accepted, along with the twenty-four hour news cycle. We watch news on mainstream networks, on our phones and online. Whenever there is disaster somewhere on the globe, Twitter lights up and chat forums go into overdrive. We crave the sense of being there, even when we don't have possession of all the facts.
This phenomenon is at the heart of Hydra Poesis' new work Prompter, which opened at the Meat Market this week. Co-written by journalist Patrick Pittman, and directed by co-writer Sam Fox, the show turns on the assumption that we are in the 'Anthropocene', the Age of the People. This mostly manifests as a tendency toward mass online empathy in the face of distant calamity, something which could be viewed as supportive but is here shown in a more pathological light.
The show starts brilliantly, as reporter Charles Boyd [Brendan Ewing] supplies live feed about an emerging humanitarian/environmental/military disaster on the fictional island of St Sulpice. The major details keep changing each time he reports, a volcano one minute and a coup another, and the implication is that all crises are one crisis when happening to others. Later in the performance Boyd makes this explicit when he notes that as far as the audience is concerned, 'one catastrophe bleed[s] into another'.
The majority of the play is concerned with the fallout from this nebulous disaster, as aid workers and citizens deal with a collapsing infrastructure and rising tensions. Meanwhile, an Australian nurse [Katya Shevtsov] finds herself caught up in the action, having gone to the island 'to help out'. She stands in contrast to the myriad online spectators, voyeurs of volatility who perform useless expressions of support in countries all over the world. But she is no more of a help than they are, and soon she is pleading for Australian Government assistance to help her out of detention.
There are lots of serious ideas swirling around this work, and a laudable ambition in the use of multiple cameras and live feeds from various online contributors, but all this technology comes at a disservice to the drama. Despite a massive inflatable bust, and a hell of a lot of onstage business with cameras and screens, the piece actually looks fairly ugly, and the scenes are awkwardly staged. As with most multimedia theatre, it isn't particularly theatrical. One exception is a moment when the central balustrade is revolved as various characters pose in strange positions and an online contributor mimes to a rendition of "Cry Me a River". It's a creepy moving tableau worthy of David Lynch, and it works because it isn't literal.
The performers are mostly fine, with Ewing a particularly convincing foreign correspondent, and Jule Japhet Chiari a passionate 'fixer'. While it's good to see a company engage with contemporary issues and display considerable nuance while doing it, Prompter doesn't achieve anything that the impressive company Not Yet It's Difficult didn't do better in the late 90s. Technology's all-pervasive and distancing function in our news may be the point, but it doesn't make very engaging play.