Public Domain review – social-media musical swipes at Facebook

Arifa Akbar
·3 min read

A computer cursor clicks on the instruction “Add as friend”, and our screens open up to a theatre set where two millennials sing: “We came here to find friends, and just like that we felt a little less alone.” Facebook’s digital motifs – thumbs up symbols and love hearts – float around them to give the impression they are inside the social media website.

This staged musical concert, streamed by Southwark Playhouse, takes Facebook’s mission to empower communities and democratise voices as its starting point, but traces a line from that utopian ideal to the Pandora’s box that has opened up around social media platforms in recent times, from the rise of self-promoting influencers to fake news, data misuse and Facebook’s privacy scandal.

Written and performed by Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke, it is an original and edgy show whose book and lyrics are entirely made up of words spoken across online and social media communities over the past year. Much of its satire comes from this verbatim authenticity and makes its subjects sound all the more hollow and narcissistic.

The biggest swipes are at Facebook: we hear Mark Zuckerberg’s interviews, his congressional testimony of 2018 and the jaded stories of two of its former moderators. But sharper and more delicious satire come in the unrelated stories of two vloggers: Millie, a groomed influencer performed to pitch-perfection by Forristal, and Z, played by Clarke, who also, convincingly, doubles up as Zuckerberg. Their musings are intertwined with more serious issues, but it is these gleeful parodies that bring the show alive.

“I hate myself,” says Z, while Millie speaks with relentless, glassy-eyed good cheer. She is a fantastic creation – a Frankenstein’s monster of social-media homilies who talks about wellness and daily affirmations in one breath, and Instagram filters for her pimples the next, and reminds her subscribers to “make sure you’re following my socials”. Forristal captures all the generic tics, expressions and mannered glottal stops of a slick, Essex-born influencer or reality-TV star. Z is more angsty, but just as vapid: “Why is there a hair in my frigging contact [lens], he says to his followers, and later: “This is like therapy.”

The show, directed by Adam Lenson, is a mashup of theatrical performance and film techniques whose wizardry goes far beyond just a split screen. The actors sing on an empty stage, but digital montages are layered on top of the live drama: online adverts, floating emojis and news reports. There is also lip-synching to footage of Zuckerberg, voiceovers to the action on stage, and pop-up boxes along the sides of our screen. Some of the digitalised content comes at a fairly high velocity and, as clever as it is in its hybridity, it leaves our attention slightly scattered.

Technical difficulties on its first night of live streaming left significant pauses and glitches. If there is a thrilling unpredictability to live performance, it is less tolerable in digital format, and here it marred the flow of the musical. Not every song works either and Zuckerberg’s congressional hearings grow laborious as they are re-enacted in long, courtroom-style battles with senators.

As a drama, it seems like a series of sketches or parodies – rather like a millennial version of Dead Ringers, without quite enough narrative development to its stories. And while it touches on important issues, from privacy to online incitement to violence, censorship and the dangerous power of social media behemoths like Facebook, these are mentioned rather than grappled with in any depth.

The satire and pastiche remain excellent though, and it offers a greater, real-world catharsis to anyone who has felt disenchanted by online communities during lockdown.

  • A recording of Public Domain will be available from 19-24 January.