The internet is a rarely explored area in the landscape of theatre. Whilst no one can doubt that the digital world makes up a massive part of our day-to-day lives, it’s an area that really hasn’t had its due in being explored, represented or examined enough by our theatres. Enter Public Domain, a new verbatim musical that explores what it means to be a citizen in the world of the ether, and how we find authentic forms of connection online
Public Domain, making its physical debut, forms one part of Nimax Theatres’ commendable Rising Stars Festival, a multi-week West End programme that is serving to highlight and platform new creatives in theatre, as venues can finally reopen their doors once more. First seen as one of Southwark Playhouse’s digital offerings earlier this year, the show finally gets its warranted run this time in front of live West End audiences.
Public Domain, written and performed by new musical theatre writing duo Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke, is a rollercoaster musical journey that navigates the internet – and the people and places that inhabit it. The show takes the words of the web verbatim (think YouTube videos, Instagram stories, Facebook ads etc.), and sets them to an electro-influenced genre-bending new musical score.
In exploring a topic as immense as the world-wide-web, the show feels more like a montage than a traditional plot-driven theatre production. Public Domain best succeeds in two distinct areas: when it adventures the power of witty political interrogation, and conversely when it offers surprising and deep insight into the internet at its best, serving as channel of genuine connection.
Authentic digital relationships are perhaps best represented in Forristal’s beautiful rendition of ‘Rise and Conquer’, a song written during the November lockdown, highlighting the funny contradiction of feeling isolated whilst, in a way, never being more connected – the number’s staging stunningly illustrated by a video-call chorus of voices from lockdown. Similarly, the show’s penultimate number ‘Lovely Boat’, based on true interviews with pensioners navigating the new world of the digital, is a sincerely sweet number that offers largely unexplored insight and pathos into one of the more positive outcomes of the technological revolution.
The show also particularly flourishes in it’s documentation and exploration of tech god Mark Zuckerberg, presenting his conflicting persona as both a surprisingly sympathetic family-man in contrast with his role as the figurehead of one of the world’s most villainous corporations in Facebook. The show’s musicalisation of Zuckerberg’s grilling by US Representative Katie Porter in Congress is a particular highlight.
Some of the show’s other interrogations of internet culture are a bit more hit-and-miss, particularly in its earlier moments. The show’s interpretation of Gen Z influencers comes off closer to parody than tribute, particularly compared with the maybe more recognisable interpretation of Millenial social media, thought this may be in part because of the age of the show’s creative team.
The show could have also benefited in a little more dramaturgical cleaning, though you can appreciate the ambitious task of representing the many, many disparate strands of something as nightmarishly abstract as the internet. But once you get into the flow of the show, there’s plenty to admire.
Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke perform the show with passion and exuberance (Forristal in particular has a spectacular singing voice). There’s also impressive work in Matt Powell’s inventive video overlays which play on Libby Todd’s towering set of giant screens – a design that certainly puts the live show firmly in the world of the web, pulling off a seamless transition from screen to stage.
Public Domain isn’t a perfect musical. However, what it is is an endlessly ambitious, wickedly creative curiosity that feels made with genuine heart and humanity. Hats off to the team who gave this show a shot in the West End. It’s a true breath of fresh air to see something so new and exuberant in the dusty, hallowed old theatres of the capital. It’s also a particular delight to have it platform truly exciting new musical theatre talents in Forristal and Clarke. Ultimately, Public Domain completely and wholeheartedly won me over.
Public Domain runs at London’s Vaudeville Theatre to 30th May. Tickets are on sale now.
Featured Photo: © Jane Hobson