FONY 2013 – Australian Theatre for Young People

“I was trying raise hashtag-awareness because hashtag-YOLO,” says Bianca, and suddenly the archetypes in the play FONY 2013 start to trigger the collective pop-culture memory, and the pieces fall into place: We’re watching Shoshanna from Girls have a screaming match with Stephen, a dead-on personality ringer for Ja’mie from We Could Be Heroes/Summer Heights High.

Fony 2013It’s disconcerting and also possibly the worst case ever of second-hand embarrassment. That really just came out of her mouth.

You know the other two characters, too. Billie is a Sims-obsessed high school boy who lacks the human feeling commonly known as sensitivity, and then there’s Year Eight Kid. You know the one. He weirdly clutches his shorts when he’s anxious. His speech is thick. He knows too much about niche subjects that are mildly unsettling and creepy (probably violent subjects, too). His name is Timmy, but when asked “who are you?” he replies, “I’m Jean Valjean.” Yeah. That guy.

One of these four teenagers is also Fony 2013, a mysterious Facebook user who shows up in the feed of the entire school, and then “shoots them all” – in an extended red-light-bathed sequence – in the back, or in the head while they’re running away, the characters say as they eulogise the fallen, in a blood-dripping description of a massacre.

But of course they mean “with gossip”.  It’s cyber-bullying described with the hallmarks of school-shooting terror, which, of course, is supposed to give psychological violence the same weight as physical violence, but doesn’t carry with it as much sensitivity as it needs to carry, making the drawn comparisons heavy-handed and cheap, cashing in on shock value rather than the sincerity and anguish it means to convey.

It’s a shame, because the insidious nature of Facebook and social media bullying – the way that verbal and emotional schoolyard abuse is becoming more and more impossible for children and adolescents to escape, because they’re always connected, is something that should be explored and highlighted. Especially in our stories and our theatre for youth.

It’s always refreshing to see theatre catch up with the ever-changing social capital of the world, and here, instagram and tumblr are words that sit comfortably in the characters’ vernacular, as they should. It’s nice to see youth theatre feeling current. It’s just a shame that FONY 2013 moves between being too dramatic and not dramatic enough; its detached overinvestment in the issue at hand is fascinating but ultimately desensitising. When the twist is revealed – who is FONY? – and the characters are driven into a sort of collective, Lord of the Flies-ish evolution of fear and desperation to assert control over a situation – it’s hard for us to feel engaged with these people at all.

[pull_left]This play is important: as the world starts to explore new issues and tensions, so too should theatre. 2013 is thankful for it[/pull_left]

There’s no love for these characters. There’s nothing likable about Facebook E-vite-collecting Bianca, or crass-for-attention Billie, or cruel-ironic-insulter Stephen, or strange-whiny-helpless Timmy. There’s no room to feel like they’re just immature kids with the promise of being adults. (Which isn’t to diminish the performances of the four actors; they are all relentlessly brave and committed performers). These are just relentlessly unkind characters, and it’s hard to care about them.

An intriguing mix of physical theatre and narrative, with projected social media explosions, some of elements of this production really work with that great feeling of new and experimental theatre – voices droning into microphones to create one boy’s Facebook persona, the litany of banal status updates trudged around the stage like Shakespeare’s schoolboys “trudging unwillingly to school.” These sequences demonstrate, on their own, the feeling the rest of the play couldn’t quite realise: the way that social media intersects with the everyday life of the young person, and how deeply engrained it is; how it’s the backbone of their understanding of the world. Those teenagers in those glimpses, those we cared about, because they were real. We’re already conditioned not to care about the Ja’mies, because they’re hyper-real, highly stylised. We needed a middle ground and a heart, and the play offers us one far too late.

However, this play should be commended for tackling a very real and very current topic, and by reflecting youth culture in youth theatre, bumps in the narrative road can be forgiven. This play is important: as the world starts to explore new issues and tensions, so too should theatre. 2013 is thankful for it.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and is the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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