How Facebook became a freedom-gobbling corporate monster

30 January 2021

9:00 AM

30 January 2021

9:00 AM

Public Domain, until 31 January

Swingin’ the Dream

RSC/Young Vic


Southwark Playhouse is beating the latest lockdown with a zingy new musical about social media. The performers, Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke, remember the far-off days when Facebook was just a harmless supplement to ordinary social interactions. How did it turn into a freedom-gobbling corporate monster?

We meet the Zuckerbergs, Mark and Priscilla, as they usher a TV crew into their mansion like a pair of politburo bigwigs showing tourists around a glue factory in North Korea. The down-to-earth billionaires offer bland answers to scripted questions. ‘How do you raise children when you can give them anything?’ Mark reveals that the mini-Zuckerbergs are treated like normal kids. ‘But, guys,’ asks the interviewer, ‘how do you not bring work home?’ Priscilla pipes up robotically: ‘No work talk on date night. Mark’s idea.’

The show moves to the congressional hearings in 2018 when Zuckerberg admitted that he employs 1,500 censors to filter out the most horrific footage of stabbings and suicides. ‘Your workers get nine minutes of supervised wellness time a day,’ scolds a congresswoman, ‘which means nine minutes to cry on the stairwell while someone watches them.’ Zuckerberg rejects this portrait of Facebook’s working environment. These hard-hitting scenes are intercut with sketches that satirise self-help videos. We’re shown a YouTube shrink who manipulates children by attacking their vulnerabilities and then by offering to repair the damage he’s just done.

‘Are you sad? Lonely? Ugly? Keep watching… and learn how to be the most popular kid in the entire school.’

Some of the galloping narcissists on the web sound certifiably insane: ‘It’s been a while since I blessed you with my presence.’ Others are straightforward parodies of existing stereotypes, like the wellbeing guru Millie Fitnesse who speaks with an exaggerated Romford twang. ‘Being an influence-uh is duh best job ev-uh!’ The show covers a lot of ground, perhaps too much, and it treats its varied subjects in the same catchy upbeat melodic register. This creates a satisfying air of artistic unity. It’s a terrific blast of entertainment. The only drawback is that the tech giants are now so dominant in our lives that some viewers will want to escape their addictive tentacles. This show does the opposite and thrusts you back into the jaws of hell.

The Young Vic and the RSC have teamed up to revive a little-known American pastiche of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The original show, named Swingin’ the Dream, starred Louis Armstrong, as Bottom, and included the music of Count Basie and Benny Goodman. It opened on Broadway in 1939. And it promptly bombed. How come? One snag is that the public are far less enthusiastic about ‘the Dream’ than members of the acting profession. (‘The most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life,’ Samuel Pepys, 1662.) Another problem is the complexity of staging a pastiche of a scholarly play which itself relies heavily on sources from Chaucer and Ovid. It just doesn’t sound like a hit. And it’s unlikely that a commercial producer would go anywhere near this antique curiosity.

That’s where the RSC and the Young Vic, with their subsidised budgets, come in. The Young Vic’s artistic director, Kwame Kwei-Armah, livestreamed a rehearsed performance of the production on 9 January. The result was all right but hardly a sensation. In a pre-show talk, he suggested that the show failed in 1939 because ‘segregationist America wasn’t ready for it’. In other words American racists refused to offer it the support it deserved. This gave the impression that the revival is intended as a moral test to see if today’s public are worthy of his work. It’s hard to be certain from a staged rehearsal but it looked like the sort of earnest effort that will generate a hypocritical fanfare of synthetic adulation. In public, we’ll fawn, in private, we’ll yawn.

Charlotte Anne-Tilley is the writer and star of a fine short drama, Twenties, about a youngster called Hope who works in Tesco’s in Macclesfield. Dissatisfied with her humdrum life, she ups sticks and moves to London. Her distraught mother tries to talk her out of it. Her morose father, slumped over a newspaper, refuses to say a word. Down south, she finds a flat and lands a waitressing job at a dinosaur-themed cocktail bar. Her boss forces her to work nine-hour shifts in a plastic T-Rex outfit. She loves it. But when he starts to get a bit handsy, she consults her female colleagues and discovers that he’s a serial groper. The script could do with a punchier climax but it’s attractively put together and Anne-Tilley has a quietly captivating screen presence. And it’s a relief to see a show about a working-class woman untroubled by sexual hang-ups or psychological disorders who went through school without being bullied, discriminated against or molested by the caretaker.

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