An Interview with Rose Lewenstein, Author of New Play Darknet

Rose Lewenstein, author of Darknet at the Southwark Playhouse.
Rose Lewenstein, author of Darknet at the Southwark Playhouse.

Starting this week, the Southwark Playhouse plays host to Darknet, the latest play by Rose Lewenstein. The play, which engages with the deep web and our approach to our personal data, is about an internet giant called Octopus Inc. that allows users to exchange personal data for currency.

Lewenstein wrote her first play, Ain’t No Law Against Fish ‘N’ Chips, on the Royal Court Young Writers Programme. Her other plays include Only Human (Theatre503, 2012), about a chance encounter between a stripper and a lawyer, and Now This Is Not The End (Arcola Theatre, 2015), a sweeping historical drama about three generations of mothers and daughters in Berlin.

Darknet is the third of Lewenstein’s collaborations with theatre director Russell Bender. Since 2012, they fused together their different backgrounds – Bender studied physics at Cambridge, Lewenstein performance art at the Central School of Speech and Drama – to create a string of fascinating productions, each based on a particular scientific, mathematical and technological phenomenon. The first, Game of Life at the Yard Theatre, used John Conway’s mathematical model to explore free will in a trio of intertwining plot strands. The second, Entries On Love at Rich Mix, was inspired by psychologist Robert Sternberg’s triangular theory of love. Where those projects had elaborate conceits, Darknet is much more topical, its questions much more urgent. We spoke to Rose to learn a little more.

Darknet is your latest in a string of collaborations with theatre director Russell Bender – all plays based on scientific/mathematical/technological phenomena. How does Bender’s natural sensibility differ from your own? Without these collaborations, what would you consider your natural “comfort zone”?

Every project is a bit different, but our process usually starts with a big idea and then it’s about casting the research net very wide before I boil it all down and make a story. Russell and I work in such a way that the content and form is developed almost simultaneously, so he’ll workshop material from early drafts and begin coming up with a visual language for the staging. In terms of my own process, while I’m writing I’m writing, but the journey as a whole is a lot more interdisciplinary than my other work.

I wish I did have a natural “comfort zone” – but, if anything, the process of writing gets more difficult and more “uncomfortable” with every new play. I think that’s because if you want to challenge your audience then it means you’ll have to challenge yourself a bit too. With Darknet I was trying to write about a pretty challenging subject in a way I hadn’t seen before, so there was no good/shit barometer. That was very difficult at first, but in the end it was also quite freeing.

In the light of this, how do you feel Darknet develops from your previous collaborations? Do you feel that it marks a departure?

I wouldn’t say it’s a departure exactly. With each new project we get a bit more ambitious. That’s because we’ve built up such a tight working relationship over the years that we can trust each other to take risks. Like, the first draft I handed to Russell last year was very long and completely bonkers and hardly made any sense, but because of all the shared research he kind of understood what I was getting at and so instead of just saying “this is mad, this will never work”, he could offer constructive feedback. Similarly, I trust that he’s going to pull off whatever I write. He’s not coming to the idea cold, so if there’s a scene in which a network gets hacked, for example, then he’s probably already thought about the visual language of that.

How did you research Darknet?

I was very inspired by Jamie Bartlett and his book The Dark Net. He manages to humanise situations and transactions that can at first glance seem technically baffling, which is exactly what I was trying to do with the play. Thomas Rid (author of Cyber War Will Not Take Place) is another person whose ideas were very influential in our early research. Also, tech journalist Geoff White and ethical hacker Glenn Wilkinson and their performance The Secret Life of Your Mobile Phone. Russell and I spoke to loads of people – academics, security experts, journalists, hackers, government agencies – who were all so generous with their time and seemed genuinely excited that we were trying to tackle these subjects as theatre makers.

I read a lot and watched a lot. I spent a lot of time on Tor, sometimes delving into the murkier parts of the internet. It felt important to do that. It also felt important not to get too hung up on how stuff works technically. You don’t need to be a tech wiz to engage with the ideas in the play – it’s a story about humans, not computers.

Could you describe a little more your experience of using Tor?

It’s a different experience to surfing the clear web because onion sites aren’t indexed in the same way, so you can’t just Google what you’re looking for. I started by using the Hidden Wiki to find particular sites and then as I discovered various forums and listings I followed certain leads and found it a bit easier to navigate. I’m sure I only touched the tip of a massive iceberg.

The main difference visually is that a lot of the sites look like they were designed in the ‘90s, and I think that’s because the people making them don’t care about user-friendly glossy interfaces. It’s strange because in some ways it feels like this exciting and dangerous underworld, but once you get over the novelty of seeing drugs and guns for sale and hit men for hire, it’s also just another part of the internet.

Is your view of the Dark Net more positive or negative? 

That’s a difficult question to answer because there are so many sides to it. If you create a space where it’s possible to browse anonymously then that creates opportunities for good things and bad things to happen. We’ve seen how, even on Twitter, people who might act like perfectly reasonable human beings AFK [away from keyboard] turn into nasty trolls. Yes, the deep web enables people to do stuff that’s illegal. But since it’s a space without borders, what’s legal and illegal – or even good and bad – can mean something different wherever you are.

The media loves to sensationalise the dark marketplaces (e.g. Silk Road, Agora, Alphabay), and they are fascinating in themselves because they present a whole load of questions about ethics and the line between illegal-but-okay and illegal-but-wrong, and of course there’s an argument that says the model actually makes certain transactions a lot safer (e.g. ensuring the quality of drugs and avoiding potential physical violence), and of course there are some things that seem so obviously wrong, like circulating images of child porn or assassination services. But Tor is also a safe space for people who have real reason not to be identified, such as those trying to fight or escape oppressive regimes. We need to think about why so many people – not just criminals – are using Tor. It’s an understandable antidote to mass surveillance.

You’ve mentioned this time that you worked “inside-out” from the characters, rather than “outside-in” from idea. Could you tell us a little about the characters and what inspired them?

The play asks questions about privacy and transparency, so I wanted to try and get into the heads of people who had arguments for and against both. It imagines a world in which data is literally currency and there are some characters who conform to that and some who don’t and some who have no choice but to try and subvert the system. I don’t really believe in creating characters as such – they are what they do and different actors will bring different interpretations to each role. I guess the starting point is finding that thing they have to fight for and then seeing what they’ll do to get it. And then I just start writing and if the character feels real then he or she will speak for themselves. It felt important not to let my own views dictate the argument. I don’t want to write goodies or baddies.

How effectively do you feel that the theatre is addressing online themes? I am reminded in particular of plays such as James Graham’s Privacy, Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information and Tim Price’s Teh Internet Is Serious Business. Do you feel that the theatre is pulling its weight, and what ways do you feel theatre can be better in portraying this facet of our lives?

I really rate all the plays you mention. Theatre is starting to address online themes in really interesting ways, but at the same time it’s got a lot of catching up to do. The way people view art and consume content is changing, but in my opinion the only way theatre can interrogate our relationship with the digital world is by embracing the live-ness that is theatre. I don’t think it works to simply try and recreate the digital world on stage. Why go to the theatre to watch a simplistic and diluted version of something you can experience via your screen?

We spend more and more time online, so naturally theatre wants to respond to that. But I think we’ll reach a stage where we’re not separating “internet plays” from “real-life plays” – whichever spaces we inhabit, theatre is a way of trying to work out why humans do the things they do.

You were recently shortlisted for Film London’s Microwave scheme, which provides funding opportunities for first-time feature filmmakers. Could you talk a bit about your ambitions for the screen? 

Yes, Microwave was a brilliant experience. I’d love to write for screen. I probably watch more films and dramas than I do theatre, and I watch a lot of theatre. This is an amazing time for TV drama and the Netflix binge-watching culture proves that even though social media might be making our attention spans shorter, people aren’t getting tired of long-form stories. And speaking of how art addresses online themes, it’ll be interesting to see where film and TV takes that next.

What do you plan to write next?

Right now I’m working on a few new ideas and also co-writing a political cabaret.

Darknet runs at the Southwark Playhouse until May 7. Tickets are £20 (£16 concessions, £12 previews).




An Interview with Rose Lewenstein, Author of New Play Darknet

Rose Lewenstein, author of Darknet at the Southwark Playhouse.
Rose Lewenstein, author of Darknet at the Southwark Playhouse.

Starting this week, the Southwark Playhouse plays host to Darknet, the latest play by Rose Lewenstein. The play, which engages with the deep web and our approach to our personal data, is about an internet giant called Octopus Inc. that allows users to exchange personal data for currency.

Lewenstein wrote her first play, Ain’t No Law Against Fish ‘N’ Chips, on the Royal Court Young Writers Programme. Her other plays include Only Human (Theatre503, 2012), about a chance encounter between a stripper and a lawyer, and Now This Is Not The End (Arcola Theatre, 2015), a sweeping historical drama about three generations of mothers and daughters in Berlin.

Darknet is the third of Lewenstein’s collaborations with theatre director Russell Bender. Since 2012, they fused together their different backgrounds – Bender studied physics at Cambridge, Lewenstein performance art at the Central School of Speech and Drama – to create a string of fascinating productions, each based on a particular scientific, mathematical and technological phenomenon. The first, Game of Life at the Yard Theatre, used John Conway’s mathematical model to explore free will in a trio of intertwining plot strands. The second, Entries On Love at Rich Mix, was inspired by psychologist Robert Sternberg’s triangular theory of love. Where those projects had elaborate conceits, Darknet is much more topical, its questions much more urgent. We spoke to Rose to learn a little more.

Darknet is your latest in a string of collaborations with theatre director Russell Bender – all plays based on scientific/mathematical/technological phenomena. How does Bender’s natural sensibility differ from your own? Without these collaborations, what would you consider your natural “comfort zone”?

Every project is a bit different, but our process usually starts with a big idea and then it’s about casting the research net very wide before I boil it all down and make a story. Russell and I work in such a way that the content and form is developed almost simultaneously, so he’ll workshop material from early drafts and begin coming up with a visual language for the staging. In terms of my own process, while I’m writing I’m writing, but the journey as a whole is a lot more interdisciplinary than my other work.

I wish I did have a natural “comfort zone” – but, if anything, the process of writing gets more difficult and more “uncomfortable” with every new play. I think that’s because if you want to challenge your audience then it means you’ll have to challenge yourself a bit too. With Darknet I was trying to write about a pretty challenging subject in a way I hadn’t seen before, so there was no good/shit barometer. That was very difficult at first, but in the end it was also quite freeing.

In the light of this, how do you feel Darknet develops from your previous collaborations? Do you feel that it marks a departure?

I wouldn’t say it’s a departure exactly. With each new project we get a bit more ambitious. That’s because we’ve built up such a tight working relationship over the years that we can trust each other to take risks. Like, the first draft I handed to Russell last year was very long and completely bonkers and hardly made any sense, but because of all the shared research he kind of understood what I was getting at and so instead of just saying “this is mad, this will never work”, he could offer constructive feedback. Similarly, I trust that he’s going to pull off whatever I write. He’s not coming to the idea cold, so if there’s a scene in which a network gets hacked, for example, then he’s probably already thought about the visual language of that.

How did you research Darknet?

I was very inspired by Jamie Bartlett and his book The Dark Net. He manages to humanise situations and transactions that can at first glance seem technically baffling, which is exactly what I was trying to do with the play. Thomas Rid (author of Cyber War Will Not Take Place) is another person whose ideas were very influential in our early research. Also, tech journalist Geoff White and ethical hacker Glenn Wilkinson and their performance The Secret Life of Your Mobile Phone. Russell and I spoke to loads of people – academics, security experts, journalists, hackers, government agencies – who were all so generous with their time and seemed genuinely excited that we were trying to tackle these subjects as theatre makers.

I read a lot and watched a lot. I spent a lot of time on Tor, sometimes delving into the murkier parts of the internet. It felt important to do that. It also felt important not to get too hung up on how stuff works technically. You don’t need to be a tech wiz to engage with the ideas in the play – it’s a story about humans, not computers.

Could you describe a little more your experience of using Tor?

It’s a different experience to surfing the clear web because onion sites aren’t indexed in the same way, so you can’t just Google what you’re looking for. I started by using the Hidden Wiki to find particular sites and then as I discovered various forums and listings I followed certain leads and found it a bit easier to navigate. I’m sure I only touched the tip of a massive iceberg.

The main difference visually is that a lot of the sites look like they were designed in the ‘90s, and I think that’s because the people making them don’t care about user-friendly glossy interfaces. It’s strange because in some ways it feels like this exciting and dangerous underworld, but once you get over the novelty of seeing drugs and guns for sale and hit men for hire, it’s also just another part of the internet.

Is your view of the Dark Net more positive or negative? 

That’s a difficult question to answer because there are so many sides to it. If you create a space where it’s possible to browse anonymously then that creates opportunities for good things and bad things to happen. We’ve seen how, even on Twitter, people who might act like perfectly reasonable human beings AFK [away from keyboard] turn into nasty trolls. Yes, the deep web enables people to do stuff that’s illegal. But since it’s a space without borders, what’s legal and illegal – or even good and bad – can mean something different wherever you are.

The media loves to sensationalise the dark marketplaces (e.g. Silk Road, Agora, Alphabay), and they are fascinating in themselves because they present a whole load of questions about ethics and the line between illegal-but-okay and illegal-but-wrong, and of course there’s an argument that says the model actually makes certain transactions a lot safer (e.g. ensuring the quality of drugs and avoiding potential physical violence), and of course there are some things that seem so obviously wrong, like circulating images of child porn or assassination services. But Tor is also a safe space for people who have real reason not to be identified, such as those trying to fight or escape oppressive regimes. We need to think about why so many people – not just criminals – are using Tor. It’s an understandable antidote to mass surveillance.

You’ve mentioned this time that you worked “inside-out” from the characters, rather than “outside-in” from idea. Could you tell us a little about the characters and what inspired them?

The play asks questions about privacy and transparency, so I wanted to try and get into the heads of people who had arguments for and against both. It imagines a world in which data is literally currency and there are some characters who conform to that and some who don’t and some who have no choice but to try and subvert the system. I don’t really believe in creating characters as such – they are what they do and different actors will bring different interpretations to each role. I guess the starting point is finding that thing they have to fight for and then seeing what they’ll do to get it. And then I just start writing and if the character feels real then he or she will speak for themselves. It felt important not to let my own views dictate the argument. I don’t want to write goodies or baddies.

How effectively do you feel that the theatre is addressing online themes? I am reminded in particular of plays such as James Graham’s Privacy, Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information and Tim Price’s Teh Internet Is Serious Business. Do you feel that the theatre is pulling its weight, and what ways do you feel theatre can be better in portraying this facet of our lives?

I really rate all the plays you mention. Theatre is starting to address online themes in really interesting ways, but at the same time it’s got a lot of catching up to do. The way people view art and consume content is changing, but in my opinion the only way theatre can interrogate our relationship with the digital world is by embracing the live-ness that is theatre. I don’t think it works to simply try and recreate the digital world on stage. Why go to the theatre to watch a simplistic and diluted version of something you can experience via your screen?

We spend more and more time online, so naturally theatre wants to respond to that. But I think we’ll reach a stage where we’re not separating “internet plays” from “real-life plays” – whichever spaces we inhabit, theatre is a way of trying to work out why humans do the things they do.

You were recently shortlisted for Film London’s Microwave scheme, which provides funding opportunities for first-time feature filmmakers. Could you talk a bit about your ambitions for the screen? 

Yes, Microwave was a brilliant experience. I’d love to write for screen. I probably watch more films and dramas than I do theatre, and I watch a lot of theatre. This is an amazing time for TV drama and the Netflix binge-watching culture proves that even though social media might be making our attention spans shorter, people aren’t getting tired of long-form stories. And speaking of how art addresses online themes, it’ll be interesting to see where film and TV takes that next.

What do you plan to write next?

Right now I’m working on a few new ideas and also co-writing a political cabaret.

Darknet runs at the Southwark Playhouse until May 7. Tickets are £20 (£16 concessions, £12 previews).




Thankless Children: Write at the Heart:1 at the Southwark Playhouse

Write At The Heart was the first of a new series of new writing nights by fledgling theatre company SALT Theatre.
Write at the Heart:1 was the first of a new series of new writing nights by fledgling theatre company SALT Theatre.

Sam Mendes’ totalitarian King Lear has been holding a terrible, gory court at the National Theatre since January; a mic away on Sunday, Southwark Playhouse hosted SALT Theatre’s irreverent spins on Shakespeare’s grimmest tragedy themselves. Their Write at the Heart series seeks the alchemy that transforms a classic play into a new one, a Shakespeare into a Stoppard, and while there are no Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns here, the six playlets at this development night all found compelling tangents to Lear to explore. It was all staged on the bleak, post-apocalyptic rubble of a stripped down rendition of Dennis Kelly’s Debris and somehow it works. The debris field stage left was an unsettling obstacle for the actors to overcome, a material echo of the catastrophe of their relationships. It worked as well in a military camp as it did in a hospital waiting room, a McDonald’s, and a family kitchen.

Lear himself was peripheral, but no less forceful. He surfaced in Catriona Kerridge’s painfully sidesplitting “Flustered” as an elderly father, jet-setting and drug-smuggling in the throws of dementia. He tried to learn Welsh and catch an international flight, wandered naked into the hall after mistaking it for the bathroom, and roated a chicken stuffed with £10k of cocaine (surely these are the surreal, modern-day equivalents of wandering the heath decked in flowers with a fool during an thunder storm). Most of this lunacy was offstage, recounted by one daughter to the other. These stories were hilarious but bruising: parental decay became an accusation and filial duty and old favouritism were weaponised in a struggle over caregiving.

The mad father was entirely unseen in “Elephant and My Castle”, by writer and previous Litro contributor Phoebe Eclair-Powell. But as his squabbling Goneril, Regan and Cordelia waited in a hospital anteroom for him to die his presence was unrelenting, even tyrannical. The sisters’ fights broke along the lines of his favouritism and on their interpretations of his madness—was it fantastical or just pitiful—as his heartbeat was piped into the theatre. They bickered in caustic, hysterical and endless loops, interrupting each other to scream about childhood acne and chubbiness, rehearsing fights they knew so well they’d honed them down to barbs: “Bad breath!” “Fat!” I have a mad, dead dad and as he died my sisters and I screamed about who had the best teeth and whether orthodontic intervention disqualified a particular set of them. “Elephant and My Castle” stung in a very personal way.

These plays mostly lingered in Lear’s voids, particularly in the well-noted absence of mothers. Jodi Gray’s “Broken Meats” envisioned the missing mothers of Lear as non-custodial parents, mothers who have been judged unfit. In searing deconstruction of the rituals of divorce and non-custodial visitations the mothers sat among dozens of fathers in a McDonald’s, sharing their insecurities and regrets about motherhood and the injustices of custody and watching through the glass as the children they rarely saw fought on the playground. Allusions to Lear drew laughs (one woman is mother to “two older girls, beating up a very much littler girl”) but one mother’s final assertion—that the fathers and the justice system aligned with them won’t even tell bad stories about these mothers; they’ll just erase them—was painfully resonant.

The mother in Sam Grabiner’s “Pelican” was an unsettling presence at the kitchen table: an urn placed there after suicide and botched cremation and funeral. The absurdist horror of her memorial, the stumbling pallbearers and charred, flung body parts, was simply prelude to the brutal, evasive fight that erupted between her husband and son. They flung accusations of abuse and responsibility for her suicide until we didn’t know whom to believe. The symbolism of the mother pelican, piercing her breast with her beak to feed her starving young with her blood, aligns with her son’s story: his father beat the mother and pushed her to suicide, but not before saving him with a confession of his father’s brutality. But the final image of the father, weeping into a fistful of her ashes, reversed the imagery: perhaps, he’s the sacrificial parent, caring for a mentally ill spouse and protecting their son from the worst of her psychosis.

These riffs on Lear worked best when they tackle the fraught personal relationships that detonate its war. The plays that faltered did shoehorned political topicality. Joseph Wilde ‘s “Bad Joke” speculated about the fate of Lear’s fool, who famously disappeared after the second act, imagining him in a prisoner of war camp under the supervision of two amateur torturers. The fool here was more of a birthday party clown than Shakespeare’s sly truth-teller and the humour of a juggling PoW and his bungling captors, who don’t have enough equipment or time to carry out the ordered Guantanamo-style torture, wore quickly. This vague, allegorical Afghanistan/Iraq commentary—the futility of war, soldiers wrestling with violence, humanity, and their mortality—has been rehearsed countless times over the last decade, and “Bad Joke,” with its 2004 talking points about waterboarding, never transcends a Michael Moore-style slapstick satire. Finally, Maud Dromgoole’s “Selkie” recreated children’s banter seamlessly, but its high-concept pretense—Scotland has a skin like a selkie and the children have to find it—sunk quickly. Shakespeare may have intended King Lear as a parable for James VI and I about the dangers of dividing his kingdom between his sons, in which case the tragedy could actually be warning about political division. I don’t want to strain the parallels too far though: the peaceful force of Cordelia might just have to be Cameron or Miliband then.

Read more about SALT Theatre on their website.




A Tale of the Dispossessed and Disinherited: Dennis Kelly’s Debris at the Southwark Playhouse

Debris
Michael (Harry McEntire) and Michele (Leila Mimmack) are perfectly matched in Abigail Graham’s revival of Dennis Kelly’s Debris. Photo © Richard Davenport.

Like mushrooms, babies grow in rubbish. They construct themselves from rotting leaves, coke cans, syringes and empty packets of monster munch and wait for their parents to find them. I know this to be the truth. Because I found one.

As one of the UK’s most celebrated playwrights, Dennis Kelly’s work manages to balance the everyday with unspoken terrors, revealing the darkest threads of human nature coursing through the domestic and ordinary. In Orphans, a couple’s dinner is interrupted by the arrival of the woman’s blood-spattered brother; in Love and Money, a happy marriage is slowly destroyed by a looming undercurrent of consumerism and debt.

Debris, Kelly’s first play, was originally staged a decade ago at Theatre 503 – still one of London’s brightest new writing beacons. Although the disjointed setting is perhaps his most abstract and nightmarish, the themes of family, siblinghood and a yearning to belong are more than familiar.The new production at the Southwark Playhouse marks the ten-year anniversary of the play’s premiere, yet it doesn’t feel like a revival. Director Abigail Graham has created an altogether too-relevant world that’s tragic, brutal and – at times – even darkly funny.

It’s no mean feat to attempt to stage Debris; with two characters, the majority of the play is essentially a double stream of consciousness from a brother and sister cast aside by an adult world that’s failed to protect them. They flit from disturbing monologue to disturbing monologue, often with conflicting, grotesque and ever-more unbelievable events. Their father is a neglectful alcoholic who eventually commits suicide on Michael’s sixteenth birthday; their mother died long ago under circumstances that are frequently explained and abandoned in favour of a better story throughout the play.

The debris of the title could refer to the pile of abandoned rubble in Signe Beckmann’s stark wasteland of a set, or indeed the brutal existence of the two characters, from which they’re trying to salvage a path for themselves. But Debris is also the name of a child – a baby found by Michael in the bushes that the two adopt, breastfeeding him with blood and sheltering him from the bleak world that surrounds them. It’s this child that finally brings a sense of meaning and belonging into their lives, and shatters them at the play’s devastating climax.

Perhaps the biggest challenge with Debris is the way that Kelly’s trademark black humour bubbles underneath the fractured narrative and tumultuous monologues. Balancing the play’s humour and pathos was never going to be easy, but Graham and her cast manage to navigate the nuances instinctively from start to finish. As Michael and Michelle, Harry McEntire and Leila Mimmack are perfectly matched. Despite his almost-laughable attempts at sororicide (“Girls eh? What can we do with ‘em?”) and her eventual betrayal, their relationship is weirdly tender throughout. Amongst the rubble and dysfunction, all they have is each other.

The play’s opening monologue – in which Michael recounts walking in on his father’s self-crucifixion – is gory, visceral and heart-poundingly hard to sit through. But McEntire uses it perfectly to set the tone for the entire production, relating the tale in a matter-of-fact manner that allows it to be simultaneously brutal and comedic. Michael is not as disconnected as we might first believe however; his attachment to “my boy Debris” is heartbreakingly real, and a sharp indicator of how lost and abandoned he really is.

Mimmack’s Michelle is nervy and almost bird-like, moving as easily around the stage as she does between different stories of their mother’s demise. Gory images of a pregnant woman choking on a piece of chicken, or Michelle gestating in a rotting corpse, are hard to stomach – but, as her monologue reveals at the plays’ end, the pitiful truth is altogether more painful, and it’s much easier to bury it in legend.

What the production communicates so successfully is that Michael and Michelle’s bizarre storytelling is the only method they have of communicating their plight. The play might only have two characters, but the missing adult figures loom larger than life; the siblings’ wreck of a father, the deceased mother and the creepy “Uncle Harry” are glimpses of an adult world which – through manipulation, death or even simply neglect – has failed to look after its young. From their first entrance as the audience take their seats, as they shuffle around the space in clothes that are stained, baggy and too big for them, we’re agonizingly aware that the pair are fending for themselves. Michelle’s chalk drawing of her mother, scribbled on the wall before the opening monologue, provides the only physical glimpse of the adulthood throughout the play.

Beckmann’s blank, bare staging is lit beautifully by Jack Knowles, stark in places with moments of dimly lit focus in the play’s more tender moments. We’re given a feeling of a post-apocalyptic wasteland – devoid of people, buildings or any form of life. It’s a world where the characters have nothing really to do except survive, allowing instead for their beautifully crafted personalities (and Kelly’s imaginative dialogue) to indicate that there is so much going on just under the surface. Debris is not a neatly packaged narrative; its audience’s struggle to distinguish truth from reality and fill in the gaps represents the mechanisms of the damaged protagonists to make sense of their destructive and broken background and to find where they belong.

And perhaps that’s why this revival feels so relevant. It may be ten years since Debris’s premiere, but after the 2010 London riots, record highs for youth unemployment and the recent explosion of media coverage into child abuse cases, the plight of maligned and forgotten young people feels incredibly pertinent. What this production does so beautifully is turning a story that’s fractured, disturbing and at times downright unsettling into something unmistakeably human – and perhaps altogether too recognizable.

Debris runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 17th May. See the theatre website for more information.