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When playwrights explore the topic of the internet, they feel compelled to announce it. Look at me, the writer seems to be saying, and congratulate me on being the first to address this urgent subject matter – as if literary departments’ slush piles are not overflowing with plays doing just that. Tim Price’s teh internet is serious business delighted a tad too much in its assaultive evocation of 4chan’s free-for-all; James Graham’s Privacy was a little too proud of its own relevance. James Fritz’s debut play Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, however, takes a different tack. There is no neon sign that says “THIS IS ABOUT THE INTERNET”. Instead, it treats the internet as almost incidental to its tightly wound family drama. This gambit pays off, for the play has what those others lack: real emotional engagement.
The play’s central incident is the dissemination of a viral video of Jack, a bright 17-year-old on the path to A-level success, in sexual intercourse with his girlfriend Cara; the play’s title is the video’s running time. Worse still, Cara responds to the video with an incendiary rape accusation against Jack, presumably out of revenge. We never meet Jack; he is off-stage, absent but always present, as we examine the fallout among his parents, Di (Kate Maravan) and David (Jonathan McGuinness). Di and David both play detective and attempt damage control. Who uploaded the video, they wonder? Jack is adamant that it wasn’t him. Was it Jack’s friend, who the parents nickname “Thick Nick” (Anyebe Godwin)? Was he simply hacked? And what is Cara’s (Rita Zmitrowicz) game? Does she not realise that she is gambling with Jack’s future? Or – as the play’s moral waters are increasingly muddied– what if Jack is guilty?
Fritz’s play is at once a moral examination and a procedural: its plotting slowly drip-feeds revelations and brutally tightens narrative screws. As the play continues, the actions of Di and David become more extreme – but, thanks to the power of their performances, what could easily have seemed silly comes off instead as the convincingly desperate gambits of parents under stress.
In its tone and subject matter, the play resembles not so much other plays as Michael Haneke: as in Caché, a family is shaken out of its complacency by the revelation of a video. But there is crucial difference with the films of the Austrian misanthrope: class. The protagonists here are not the coddled bourgeoisie; they are denizens of West Croydon, straddling the boundary between working- and lower-middle-class. That the play should not be set in Hampstead or Islington is refreshing; the parents do not have the cushion of fortune or influence, instead investing in Jack their hopes of betterment. There is still a class fault-line here – Jack is understood to be well-spoken, whereas the loud, impudent Cara is, as David calls her, “very Croydon” – but this is a very different, and much more interesting, dynamic than that of a conceited bourgeoisie reaping what they sow.
Four Minutes Twelve Seconds is the future of the internet play. It does not congratulate itself on its subject matter; it simply assimilates it into the fabric of its narrative. The internet is a fact of life, not a novelty; as much part of life’s warp and woof as cars or electricity. Nobody remembers Dutch playwright’s Herman Heijerman’s 1910 play Boredom (Verveling) because it was one of the first plays to feature the telephone. Fritz recognises that the internet is past the point of being an object of wonder or subject or moralising; it is simply a new vehicle for essential human emotions. Four Minutes Twelve Seconds is worth ninety minutes of your time.
Four Minutes Twelve Seconds continues at Trafalgar Studios until December 5.