Who would you be if you could be anyone? Sockpuppet is an absolutely unique production both in its technicality and story elements, tackling an entirely new emerging moral quandry. A ‘Deepfake’ is an artificial reproduction of someone’s face or body onto another person’s face or body. The technology allows people to ‘sockpuppet’ others, by impersonating them digitally, and do or say things that the person has not said. Its applications right now have ranged from the nefarious to the parody, and Buzzcut Productions’ new play seeks to explore the ethical limits of this technology through a wholly original and mesmerising story.
Tash and Flo are Univeristy students who have taken advantage of the technology by setting up a makeshift Deepfake recording studio in the spare room of their student flat. Selling videos online is the name of the game – and Flo is the perfect actor to play Margot Robbie, Keira Knightley, and many more. They record messages and odd requests from punters online, with Tash filtering out anything that crosses boundaries or sexualises Flo/the person being Deepfaked. It isn’t long before they branch out, and they even begin imitating the recently dead Queen Elizabeth Windsor, as a birthday message bought for an elderly Grandmother who hasn’t realised the Queen has passed. Moral concerns are pushed aside by Tash, who believes that they are people at the “good” end of utilising the technology.
The dynamic is thrown off by the arrival of Tash’s friend from Sixth Form, Archie. The show is intersposed with moments of darkness on stage, in which Archie and Flo talk in the darkness through microphones to one another, seemingly reading from a script. I won’t ruin the reveal of the purpose of this, but Archie’s plotline is beautifully woven into the broader plot through it, accompanied by visuals on the screen filmed live in front of you using the Deepfake camera which evoke the spreading of ashes and the turning of an hourglass. Archie and Tash’s schoolfriend Emily has passed away, and it isn’t long before Tash’s rules of not using the camera for anyone they know – who they call ‘Real People’ – dissipate, and the business, as well as friendships, begin to fracture and shatter.
The integration of the Deepfake element of the show into the live performance is masterfully done, and the technological innovation on display is reason enough to go and watch Sockpuppet. The camera on stage livestreams Flo onto a white tape screen behind the stage. The audience quite literally gawps and gasps every time the face changes, especially in the early sections of the play, and it feels like the birth of something really special onto the stage. Watching Flo perform various characters is endlessly fascinating, and the piece could have very well gotten away with just making that the central crux of the show. Thankfully for all of us, they didn’t. The piece’s story is so well carved out and explores themes of grief, technology, and man-made horrors beyond your comprehension.
The piece tonally sits within the cadre of Black Mirror and Mr. Robot, but it never feels as though it is borrowing too heavily from those in its genre. The mood that the actors, and the integration of the tech into the narrative, create is dark, moody. Sitting in the audience, you really feel as though you have unearthed something from the deepest corners of the internet, and the show’s themes will likely test the very corners of your humanity and relationship to technology.
To talk in more detail on performance, extra special praise should be given to Grace De Souza’s Flo and Henry Waddon’s Archie. Waddon is an exceptionally talented actor and you fall completely into his performance as Archie, it is natural, believable, and Waddon manages to capture the essence of grief and how it impacts personality. His facial expressions, especially in reacting to seeing the Deepfakes come to life, are misty-eyed and magical. Archie operates a lens for the audience in exploring the themes in the early acts of the play, but by the end we come to see how his relationship with Deepfake technology has become toxic for him and dizzyingly disorienting. It’s a tightly controlled character arc that pays off massively for the production.
De Souza’s Flo and her relationship with Annabel Ekue-Baptist as the Actor/Techie dynamic is well thought out and slots into the story well. The piece integrates very recent events which make it seem so current, and so urgent, including the regular intervention of ongoing University Staff strikes in the UK among them. De Souza’s performance brims with passivism toward the technology, opening up a different perspective to Archie and Tash, who each have a very troubled connection to the camera. Her performances as each of the celebrities are intriguing, and compliment the integration of the tech so perfectly. Flo is an entrancing character, the performance utterly standout.
The performances are generally pretty stellar, but do not feel completely polished just yet. Some moments seem a little forced, and you’re left wondering occasionally as to whether the actors are thinking what their next line is. The show attempts at an extremely naturalised tone of dialogue, with interjections, people cutting into each other and very short sections of dialogue. The execution of this is varied, and in some points it is hard to tell when a fumble is intentional or an issue that we’re watching play out on stage. A little bit of tightening up here and there would do the piece a lot of good, and I genuinely think it could be a pretty flawless production otherwise.
The sound, lighting and set design, put together by Lighting Director Pen Hilder Jarvis,Sound Designer Shaan Dighu, and Set Designer Frances Gawne, is gorgeously bleak. The sound weaves elements of technological humming and melodic waves in between the scenes. In the sections where Archie and Flo are talking in the dark, there is a complete synthesis of sound, light and performance that is hair-raising. The lighting and set are deliberately muted and messy in comparison to the Deepfakes, which are in the show the ‘perfect product’. It evokes student flat while also evoking desolation and an ominous, futuristic, dystopian feel.
Sockpuppet delves into what it means to be human, paradoxically by exposing the technology which dehumanises us and allows for the creation of an entirely digital personhood. It’s such a present, current piece of theatre and you just have to go and watch. I’m sure you’ll be somewhat overpowered by this piece, it is utterly original. Urgent, intrepid and gorgeously performed from both actors and technology, this is a rich and intoxicating story-world to enter.
Performances of Sockpuppet have concluded at VAULT Festival. Follow the company on social media for updates on future showings of the piece.