How is the wide availability of internet pornography changing society? Several new stage works in the UK and US are exploring this question – and the results are thought-provoking, writes Holly Williams.

For theatre to be relevant, it can’t ignore technological developments and their impact on our lives. Yet staging technology is famously hard to do well – people staring at computer screens is theatrically inert,  but go too hard on the techno-wizardry and you risk no longer feeling theatrical at all.

The problem, you might imagine, would only be compounded when dealing with one of the most vexed aspects of online culture: internet porn. And yet this hot topic for media debate is also finding its way onto theatre stages – not literally, I hasten to add. Playwrights are finding dramatically inventive ways to ask questions about how easily accessible hard-core pornography might be influencing our society.

And if you’re thinking this is a niche concern for late-night feminist fringe shows – well, you’d only be partly correct. There have been breakout hits from Edinburgh in recent years on online sex and sexualisation: consider Bryony Kimmings’ Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, her quest to change the world after being horrified by what her nine-year-old niece could see on the internet, or Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, about a young woman whose porn habit helps ruin her relationship.

This week the topic arrives at no lesser institution than London’s National Theatre where physical-theatre company Rash Dash, in collaboration with acclaimed young playwright Alice Birch, present We Want You to Watch. This energetic blast of a show sees two young women – Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen– take on internet porn. They interrogate a young man who watches violent videos, try to get the Queen to ban it and even enlist a mega-hacker to turn off the internet. It’s a provocation, not an actual suggestion, in a ballsy, funny, angry show that places the debate itself centre stage. They are not, they yell, anti-sex – they just think porn could be better than the degrading, misogynistic stuff that is currently a mere mouse-click away.

“We did a [work-in-progress] version about two years ago that was much more domestic, more about the impact of porn on relationships, but that didn’t feel quite right,” explains Birch. “We knew we wanted to make something political, and it felt positive to find a form that owned that and was very unapologetic. So the idea of two women taking on the world of porn felt interesting – and ridiculous!”

‘Relentless and overwhelming’

Their aim is to start the debate, to disrupt the idea that watching violent sexual acts is just a standard entertainment in 2015. Even that is “a lot to ask people – to think and to challenge their own opinion,” says Birch pragmatically.

The audience sees no actual pornography, but We Want You to Watch does include graphic descriptions. The performers at one point try to express in dance what it feels like to watch porn – a dead-eyed pneumatic thrusting and banging ensues. They wanted the show to be “relentless and overwhelming, a bit of a bombardment”, says Birch – because that was what researching and watching porn felt like to them. We Want You To Watch certainly uses the uniquely live and in-yer-face potential of theatre to make an audience sit up and listen to its arguments.

The power of the human body onstage is, of course, something that separates theatre from TV, film, photography – and online porn. It’s comparatively easy to distance yourself from a small image on a smartphone screen; harder not to be unsettled by a person in front of you. This queasy power is harnessed in Jennifer Haley’s hit play The Nether, which opened in LA in 2013, before enjoying runs in London’s West End and off-Broadway in New York this spring. West Coasters can catch it early next year when it’s staged at the San Francisco Playhouse.

A chilling tale, the play is set in the near-future where the internet has become a total virtual reality. Plug in and visit The Hideaway, a pseudo-Victorian mansion where visitors have sex with, then violently murder, little girls, all without consequence. The Nether asks difficult questions about the degree of responsibility we must take for our online actions – but it also puts the audience in an uncomfortable position of spectatorship: they may be playing digital creations, but the little actors are flesh-and-blood. Audiences can’t help but be steered to ask: if it looks real, and feels real, maybe the moral responsibility is real? 

Using technology onstage isn’t just about peering into a grim future – it can also update classics to our present moment. So it was for Anya Reiss’ take on Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening last year: when re-writing his play about sexually confused and suicidal teenagers (which was accused of being pornographic even in 1891), she couldn’t exactly ignore the internet. The production used Skype, Facebook and YouTube, with troubled teens swapping videos of S&M porn.

Speaking to Reiss as the show opened, the 22-year-old told me that she had never actually watched porn before she embarked on this project. As research goes, it was pretty eye-opening: “It was not what I thought! .” She says she was terrified by it, “never mind if I was 14.”

Not suitable for children

Adults being taken aback by what youngsters are watching is a common theme, and another new play tackling online porn actually has its basis in real life. Lizi Patch found herself caught up in an international media storm two years ago, after she wrote on her blog about her 11-year-old son’s traumatic experience of being shown hard-core pornography on a phone by kids at school.

Her play about the issue, Punching the Sky,  received public funding in the UK for development; she’s hoping another round will see it touring 10 regional theatres across the country. It uses animation to create the character of the young boy, while the mother is played by an actor – as is the character of the internet. This allowed Patch – like Rash Dash – to take the internet on, and to give voice to the debates she’s been having about online porn and how we protect children from it.

“As a writer and director, I’m anti-censorship. My son, he said himself if I hadn’t watched it at home I would have gone to my friend’s house and watched it,” Patch acknowledges. There are no easy solutions, but she hopes that a play will encourage discussion. “It’s about keeping that conversation going. The bottom line for me is education: I know it’s difficult to talk about pornography in a school environment… but there will have to be seismic shift.”

And theatre might just help provide it. “Young people who’ve seen Punching the Sky have been able to talk about the issues through the characters in the play, rather than as themselves. It means those conversations can be a bit more far-reaching.” These theatre makers want you to watch – but they also want you to think.

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