String is surprisingly satisfying to watch. For a play that begins with a typing girl (Jessie See) denying that she’s writing a play about a play, it steers remarkably well clear of stilted meta-theatre. For a short piece trying to make serious points about our relationship with the internet, it does well to keep its audience entertained. It delivers ideas rapidly, stretches its metaphors without labouring them, and establishes sufficiently strong call-backs to give a potentially jumbled series of scenes a sense of coherence.
The themes playwright Lauren Jackson tackles in String are clearly too hefty to address fully in a forty-five minute play. Thankfully, this does not prove to be a problem. Jackson evidently appreciates the constraint, and attempts no conclusive attack on our excessive dependence on the web. Instead, she lets the unwieldy subject share centre-stage with a more immediately engaging portrait of an artist (Adham Smart) juggling his project and his girlfriend (Ellie Shaw). The work’s central metaphor is the installation that the artist is constructing: a network of tangled strings draped around four poles. Photos, tickets, adverts, fliers, newspaper cuttings and typed messages hang from the string. If at first its allegorical relationship with the internet seems forced, it quickly develops foundations and ultimately convinces.
The combination of character portraits and societal comment might have left the piece over-crowded by competing themes and storylines, but thankfully Jackson’s script allows breathing space. The narrative regularly steps out of the artist’s story and into a calmer middle-ground, where we see the play about the artist being written by the typing girl (See). In a comforting moment, Smart, now playing the actor of the artist, voices his own confusion about the play’s message.
The play’s cast generally live up to the demands of a complex script. They anchor a wandering plot with a set of strong character performances. Initially, Smart leads the drama forwards with his self-absorbed, struggling artist, establishing the slightly dark humour of the piece. As the artist’s short-tempered love interest, Shaw injects the first real signs of tension into the story. She seems to grow into her role as the play goes on, dominating the closing minutes as the string physically takes hold of her.
The relationship between Smart and Shaw’s characters receives a lot of attention both from the writer and the actors — they evolve from estrangement to intimacy, eventually swapping attitudes to the string. Together with James Tibbles’ comic timing (playing the artist’s friend), this subplot sustained my interest in the welfare of the people I was watching long enough to feel it compromised by their relationship with the string. The play benefits from its limited length. It was over before I grew tired of the growing tension, helping its cast to grip my attention until the play’s abrupt conclusion.
A particular highlight was the scene in which the artist tells his friend (James Tibbles) the story of his supernatural experiences in the moors. While his character listens, Jackson ingeniously has Tibbles (as actor) take part in the dialogue being recounted, making the atmosphere suddenly playful. This variation in tone keeps String from wallowing in the web of metaphors that threatens at times to entrap it. Specific criticisms of the internet’s role in society are few on the ground in this play, and happily so. The sense of a looming threat, together with the characters’ increasing disregard and loss of privacy, is enough to set every audience member questioning their own reliance on a mysterious entity far out of their control.
For more information about upcoming performances at the Burton Taylor Studio, please visit the Oxford Playhouse website.