Dystopia, my old friend
Can you stage the internet? I'm just back from the sweetest, saddest performance I've seen in ages - and also the first that, in barely more than an hour, tells the story of the web's utopia turning to dystopia.
Chris Goode is an utterly beguiling theatre maker, and The Hippo World Guest Book opened Lean Upstream, a festival devoted to his boundary-blurring work. Goode's erudite, funny website burrows into ideas or sets them juggling. He is also the only person to have performed a play in my home. We Must Perform a Quirkafleeg was a deceptively rambling tour round geekboy obsession, full of facts and whimsy, but building towards pure wonder. At the close, he simply left the building, after having traced his outline in salt on the floor. We stepped around the salty silhouette for days, as if living in a Weegee crime scene. (He did, however, refuse food, a terrible rebuke to my inner Jewish mother, even though I pursued him round the room with platters of filo pastry.)
Homestyle suits Goode's manner - he's a big chap, with a shy boy's bulk and an enthusiasm that feels personal. He has, I remembered tonight at the beginning of The Hippo World Guest Book, the gentlest smile and softest voice, both wonderfully employed here to suggest the beaming hopes of early web communities. Other than a recorded introduction by Oliver Postgate, the late, solemn-toned master of British children's television, all the words come from the edited guestbook of an American hippo-fancier's website. Goode beautifully replicates the juddery spelling and grammar, recites the punctuation (exclamation mark) and obeys the convention that capital letters might suggest RANDOM SHOUTING. The early sections of the show are hippo-snortingly funny.
But a site designed to burble enthusiasm for all things hippoid (hippotudinous?) is soon rattled by recalcitrant schoolkids, glinting pornsters and people who really really dislike hippos - or, at least, who wish to vex those who love them. 'Osama bin Laden' is just one of the hippo haters. Defenders of the portly grey beast refute them, perhaps unwisely; their harried, desperately reasonable messages read like outtakes from Ban Ki-moon's email account.
Goode approaches the scamps, trolls and cyberanonymous postures perfectly seriously - as if even the crudest, daftest, attention-baiting message represents an expression of inner need. He beams sweetly whenever someone says they love hippos ('sooooo much'); or, with grave sincerity, he opines that hippos are less attractive than, say, Johnny Depp, or that hippos may be working with the squid to undermine humanity. Even the shouts seem wrenched from a place of distress (the net turns out to be a place where people can hear you scream) - Goode waggles his hands helplessly as the sudden volume jolts his body forwards.
All these voices slowly disappear, and the guest book becomes an unweeded garden, its visitors howling at an empty cybersky. The site grinds to a close, choked by spam - but even here, Goode excavates a nugget of hope, wistfully seizing on the filter-dodging, cliffhanger scraps of narrative embedded in autogenerated spam.
Goode prefaced the performance by saying it was the last time he'd perform the piece. But he has Postgate's recording, and a small stuffed hippo - someone should really persuade him to revive it again. And again. I felt melancholy by the end, and slipped away before Goode's post-performance conversation with the estimable critic Matt Trueman. Perhaps real people, chatting in a real room, would have cheered me up.
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