People use the phrase ‘desensitivised to violence’ like repeated exposure to horrors makes us feel them less, but I’m not sure that’s true. Sometimes it feels like the older you get, the more you empathise – wincing instead of giggling at Sylvester’s repeated canary-inflicted injuries or action explosions or horror movie dismemberings. ‘It’s only pretend’ is no longer comforting once you learn that somewhere out there, it’s happening for real.
Rosie Elnile’s monolithic, brutally powerful set design for Big Guns doesn’t let you forget it. Two performers sprawl in an indent in a sloping abstracted seating bank, lit in goriest red, staring back at the audience with 3D glasses on and popcorn in hand. We’re the violent ones, we’re the horrorshow. But Nina Segal’s text isn’t really about violence of the movie variety – all axes and splatters and bumps in the night. Or at least, it doesn’t start that way. It’s about how the internet turns us all into our worst nightmares: creeps stalking the every move of our vulnerable prey. And about how the people who ‘win’ the game of most likes, most subscribers, most shared are the ones who are also the ones bearing their throats to the invisible, vampiric hordes.
The protagonists ‘One’ and ‘Two’ are guides to this dark underworld. Their abstracted dialogue offers clues to their fixations. They pick up a diary on the bus and pore over every page – an obsession that finds a more private parallel in hate-reading a couple’s DIY blog, or hate-watching a woman’s YouTube channel, filled with violent fury at her picture-perfect existence. They watch ISIS videos of beheadings, and action films – dissecting their satisfaction like a warped version of the Gilmore Girls, slumped on the sofa and gleefully anatomising their love of junk food. Their favourite moment is the one just before the blow lands, and the blood spurts out.
Dan Hutton’s ice-cool production reminds me of a Sleepwalk Collective show – dim, red lighting, a building soundtrack of looped violin scrapings, performers speaking their lines deadpan into a mic, making uncompromising eye-contact with the audience. It’s incredibly striking – particularly when the lights go out and we’re left in a velvet-black pocket of intensity. But I’m not sure this live art-influenced, single note approach does justice to the agility of Segal’s text, which relies on shifting moods and closely naturalistic satire of online idioms. And at the risk of sounding several centuries old, the reverberation of the two performers’ amplified voices sometimes left me straining to make sense of what was being said.
But what came across was a rich layering of ideas – it’s so rare to see a work with the ambition to nail down what the internet is, what it does, to try and address the big hard cultural questions that theatre so often flings out, then leaves to hang in the air. A section that landed particularly powerfully for me was one where a beauty vlogger’s husband leaves to fight in a war (there are plenty to choose from) – being glued to a screen isn’t enough for him any more. So she retaliates by taking sandpaper and pliers to her body, in a horrendous self-harm makeover that’s both hugely disturbing, and only inches away from the self-inflicted violence that’s expected of women: waxed limbs, venom-plumped lips. If there was a way to close my ears, I would have.
It’s a section that reveals the central, feminist irony of Nina Segal’s play. Hollywood has made women the voiceless victims of movie violence for decades. It’s sexier that way. But online, where women are finally free to tell their own stories and create their own narratives on blogs or vlogs or Facebook bombardments, they’re still opening themselves up to unimaginable potential abuse – from the everyday of violent comments to online stalking to real-world stalking and the reality of being ‘followed’, for real. Putting yourself out there is waiting for the blow to land. And Segal’s text makes that tension tangible, and agonisingly real – no amount of repetition can make its power wear off.