It’s never untimely to make a production exploring the university free speech debate given how often it becomes a news item. It was only two months ago that Education Secretary Gavin Williamson MP warned the Government will defend free speech if universities won’t. All of this suggests playwright Kieran Hurley had a lot of ideas to explore in his story of on-campus callout culture and debate, Bubble.
In what is a cleverly constructed online production relying solely on videos from actors all across Europe, the 48-minute play follows the online fallout after a university professor, William Barrett (Graeme Stirling), is reported to have used a sexist slur during one of his lectures. If you can see past the initial awkwardness and on-the-nose dialogue that comes with actors reading out their characters’ text messages out loud, with all the OMFGs and expletives, then the idea of all the conversations taking place digitally is an interesting one, a virtual setting which does well to capture the snowballing discourse which can come from a discussion on a topic as heavy as freedom of speech.
In fact, one of the smaller subplots was particularly intriguing, namely Professor Barrett realising the conversation around his alleged behaviour had moved on to discussions of safe spaces and no-platforming, and whether the whole situation he has found himself in has gone completely. Sure, callout culture is a tiny part of a much wider issue of identity politics, free speech and so on, but the question of when someone has been properly called out for their actions, and when exactly do things move on is an idea not often explored when it comes to cancel culture.
What is initially an argument over the professor becomes a conversation about feminism and safe spaces, with one student, Connor (Emmanuel Sonuga), questioning why he can’t go to a women-only feminist society meeting on campus sexism. As a man, is he a better ally by respecting the space or being educated inside it?
For anyone who belongs to a minority group or demographic, the debate around community spaces and true allyship will be all too familiar (as a member of the deaf community, conversations continue online about how hearing people can best support us). It’s likely that this part of the story won’t come across as a new idea or concept to some, but as I write my review now, Bubble has certainly made me consider my own ‘filter bubble’, and therefore I can appreciate others may not have the same understanding of the concept of safe spaces and the different opinions held about them.
With that being said, the play does present itself as more of an introduction to on-campus politics rather than seek to offer many new ideas to something which, as mentioned previously, has been something of a hot topic for several years now. In a series of scenes, the plot moves on from callout culture, to safe spaces and then to no-platforming. In terms of the latter, a far-right speaker is invited to speak at the university, which prompts the same arguments over validating harmful opinions through platforms versus ‘the marketplace of ideas’. If the characters are not quoting a philosopher or someone else, then they’re explaining their views to others – provided they’re willing to listen and don’t block them in the process.
Perhaps that is, at its heart, what Bubble is about: a congregation of all the ideas around free speech when social media sites might not otherwise show them. If not that, then it may well be the argument that left-wing identity politics only goes on to breed a kind of populism on campus. It’s something suggested through the character of Preston (Ed Larkin), a typical right-wing troll who bemoans anyone progressive-thinking as a social justice warrior (SJW), feminist or Nazi. As a character, his dialogue is flat and repetitive, mostly hurling insults at others at regular intervals, save for a monologue earlier on in the play which tries and fails to humanise his toxicity by giving him ambitions and a more emotional side.
Meanwhile, student journalist Courtney (Rose Sharkey) is used more as a plot device than a fleshed out character. Her being pressured to pick a side in a heated debate could have been a curious subplot for her, but instead her news reports on the unfolding discourse serve as a catalyst for even more drama. While there is an issue around individuals plagiarising her reports at one point, where this sits in the wider discussion isn’t made clear or apparent.
Speaking of words, at times one wondered why written Facebook posts were being spoken, rather than the dialogue potentially being framed around Skype calls, for example (either way, editor Oliver Plant and visual effects editor Louis Hudson maintain the rapid pace one would associate with online discussions). Maybe there is a commentary buried in the play around the disconnect between how words are typed and spoken, or how debates are somewhat moving away from lecture halls onto online platforms, but that would be one of many thoughts Bubble provokes. It’s just hard to find the big, original idea at the centre of it all.
Bubble is available to view online for free on Theatre Uncut’s YouTube channel until 23 April.
Featured Image: Theatre Uncut.