“a reminder yet again of the power of theatre to bring into the light, things that would rather hide in darkness”
Matthew Gouldesbrough’s play Holy Land is a grim and disturbing look at the dark web. For audience members unaware of the dark web, it is the part of the internet not indexed by search engines. Those who post and access material on it, do so anonymously. Holy Land begins with a character describing the ease with which he can buy a gun on the dark web, no questions asked. In the space of eighty minutes, we find that the purchase of the gun is really just the final purchase in a long line of chilling acquisitions that include videos of pornography, including pornography with violence.
Harrowing stuff indeed. Nevertheless, Holy Land is an inventive script that tells its story by putting together three characters who address the audience in a series of monologues. We eventually come to understand that they all have a shared past which involves encounters with predators on and offline. Rick Romero as Jon, gives an intense, athletic performance as a bewildered father trying to hold his family together against a predatory local church. Gouldesbrough, in addition to writing the script, is the young computer nerd Tim, lured into situations of increasing horror as he tries to avoid a psychopath he first encountered in school. Hannah Morrison gives an all too believable performance as Kate, a teenager with chronic and ultimately fatal self-esteem issues, who is groomed in all sorts of online nastiness. In the ironically titled Holy Land, Gouldesbrough has created a modern morality tale where there are no winners, and no comfort for the survivors, either.
Holy Land is an economical show that focuses on the actors, with a bare boards set. But because it’s a play about the internet, the actors are also always on stage with screens. This is not an entirely successful device. Meant as a counterpoint to descriptions of videos online, the images are often presented as grainy and indistinct, but the overall effect can be distracting. Even when used to present a kind of livestream action at the end of the play, to underpin the “this is happening now in front of you” theme of the videos being presented online, the use of screens in this way comes across as a gimmick rather than illuminating. In any event, the actors have all the words they need to tell this tragic story.
Holy Land is not a play for family audiences, and there will be theatre goers who find this play challenging to sit through. Nevertheless Elegy Theatre Company deserves credit for bringing such a difficult subject to the stage. It’s a reminder yet again of the power of theatre to bring into the light, things that would rather hide in darkness.
“this would benefit from being condensed into the powerful drama that is aching to come out”
Hidden under our feet is an information superhighway that speeds up interactions between a large, diverse population, allowing individuals who may be widely separated to communicate and help each other out. This isn’t the internet. We’re talking about fungi: a mass of thin threads that link the roots of plants. The tree in your garden is probably hooked up to a bush down the road. This ‘wood wide web’ even has its own version of cybercrime, but for the most part ‘Mycorrhiza’ is a process of give and take. Our plants are interacting with each other, just trying to help each other survive.
Writer Luke Stapleton has adopted this for the title of his debut play running at The Space as part of the ‘Foreword Festival’ of new writing; and although the botanical reference runs through the bedrock of the text, it focuses on the two characters and their own complex relationship with each other and their back stories. The story opens to the soundtrack of the Scots rock band, Biffy Clyro, appropriately singing the words: ‘happpiness is an illusion’, while Dean (Scott Afton) and Alicia (Corrina Buchan) are schoolkids stranded on a remote Scottish island as the tide comes in, with no option but to wait until dawn. Flash forward six years to the same beach where they reunite and try to make sense of the intervening years, and of each other.
These two characters are naturally portrayed, with fine performances, by the two actors. On the surface they are the antithesis of each other yet are two sides of the same coin. Afton subtly depicts the tongue-tied anger that lies beneath Dean’s introversion while Buchan skilfully lets us know that beneath her thick-skinned, nervy brashness is a soul that is truly hurting. Buchan’s performance is the more polished and believable, but it is essentially Dean’s story and his struggle with his own masculinity; the cause of which is revealed in a final heartfelt monologue. It is only because he believes Alicia is sleeping and cannot hear that Dean is finally able to give voice to what he has been through.
But the struggles to communicate are also reflected in Stapleton’s struggle to get to the point. There is some fine writing on display with its stinging observations and sharp dialogue that reminds us sometimes of Irvine Welsh. But there is a lot of moss that needs to be stripped away to let us get right to the roots. At ninety minutes it feels long and rather than try to build on this to create a full-length show, this would benefit from being condensed into the powerful drama that is aching to come out. We are not helped by Sepy Baghaei’s staging that sometimes weakens the action and, with a backwash of clumsy transitions, drags it back.
Ultimately, though, a lot of food for thought is washed up and we can pick and choose what we take away with us. It may not be brand new, but it is slightly twisted which makes us look at the issues in a different way.