Trapped by words

In Philip Ridley's new play, the actors get lost in language.

A man and a woman sit facing each other at opposite ends of a transverse stage. As the audience members line this runway, we are forced to choose one or the other to observe: already in David Mercatali's staging there is a sense of sides, and of opposition.

And yet Philip Ridley's Tender Napalm, premiering at Southwark Playhouse, is a love story. The oxymoronic title exactly captures the mood of skirmish mingled with solicitousness. The pair (Jack Gordon and Vinette Robinson), who are not given names, fantasise for 80 minutes about wreaking havoc on each others' bodies: violent subtraction, on her part (castration, eye gouging), violent addition on his (bullets in the mouth, grenades up the vagina). This is sex as mutual mutilation.

In this consensual make-believe, they dare each other to greater heights, or depths. The two concoct wild narratives that cast each other in a mythic light, as sole survivors on an island and competitors for its domination. At times, he's Perseus slaying the serpent, or a bound Prometheus; she's got the "marine DNA" of Neptune. They battle for supremacy in this dystopian Eden with a chorus of monkeys, crocodiles, unicorns, conjured at will. There is an element, as in the conceits in metaphysical poetry, of building whole worlds out of one's beloved. One thinks of Donne's elegy "To His Mistress Going to Bed": "O, my America, my Newfoundland".

In this case, the language was not quite the transcendent poetry that might have been hoped for. Images seemed a little arch, a little forced, as in: "your tongue is so furry, I could perm it". At times an altogether more prosaic narrative intrudes, of a life in Spitalfields, of garden centres on the Dagenham Road, and a party where they first met. It's in the garden at this party, towards the end of the show, where we discover the statuary and the quotidian objects (like crocodile cufflinks) that have inspired the dream-like repetition of monsters and animals in earlier stories.

They mention a child, which they perhaps had together, and lost. Certainly the storytelling would seem to serve as an escape, a fabulous distraction from painful truths, and they will each cast a storyline to rescue the other if they are becoming too enmired in one narrative. In this, the show felt like an extended improvisational exercise, with scenarios proffered, taken up and discarded: yarn spinning as a form of escapology.

As much as words provide these characters with alternative realities and possibilities, they also entrap. The play starts and ends with the same phrases: this pair is caught in an infinite loop. To some extent all these words entrap the actors, too. There is a great deal of narrative, which can cage and constrain the performance even as it attempts to free it up. Mercatali injects some wild energy, but much of it feels unfocused. There is no doubting Gordon's physical commitment: ten minutes in and he is marinating in his own sweat, but this causes its own anxieties for the audience, as he shakes saltwater like a wet dog at the front row, and leaves Vinette Robinson's jeans sticky and damp after bearing her on his shoulders.

That said, one hour and 20 minutes with just two performers and a couple of chairs is no easy feat. The sheer vibrancy of the actors turns the stage into a buzzing magnetic field in which they appear to be locked in a bind of attraction and repulsion. Particularly in the "tender" part of the equation, the connection between the two is palpable and powerful.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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