Dear Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini, Rufus Norris and co,
A short while, I went to see your new musical wonder.land, a play set partially in the online gaming world, and partly in the ‘real’ world, with increasingly blurred lines between the two (The Guardian gives a good synopsis here.)
As someone who has played online RPGs, there were things that I liked about it, and indeed related to a lot, and there were a few things which I didn’t, which I’ll hopefully get to write about in due course.
But before that, let’s for a minute talk about the elephant, or more specifically two elephants, on the stage in this show.
The first one actually comes right at the end, when character of Ms. Maxome come ends up commiting crimes in the real world as a result of having complete freedom to bully and injure in the game world of wonder.land.Given the topical nature of this, when multiple people have now been arrested for the consequences of online acts, from ‘swatting’ (faking emergency calls to send an armed police force to someone’s house), to falsifying records to get people fired, ‘doxxing’ – finding and publicising someone’s details and address so that others can harrass them, and all of these actions are driven by having the tools to act without any repercussions or recrimination, it was unexpected to see that in the show’s climatic scene, the villain shown to actually have a mental illness and in a dated gag straight out of the 1950s, is taken away kicking and screaming by the men in white coats.
Aside from diminishing her actions to ‘she’s just a crazy person’ rather than explore the effects that a places of zero consequences can have on people, which trivialises the real consequences of online abuse both for the perpetrators, who are regarded as merely in need of help, and the victims, whose problems are downplayed because they’re ‘only online’ and they can ‘just switch off the computer, this is a shockingly insensitive moment in a play that attempts to deal seriously with mental health issues.
In the first act, the main character’s father has a gripping solo scene where he sings about his gambling addiction, and the way it consumes his thoughts. Elsewhere, main character Aly admits to her wonder.land avatar how much she hates herself, and longs to be the girl she sees on the screen, a moment that comes after her online friends confess their own problems: parental abuse, depression, anxiety, body image problems- and this brings us on to the second jarring moment of the musical, when at the end of the verse, an apparently male character confesses ‘Sometimes I wear my sister’s bra! Is that so wrong?’
Now, I truly, truly don’t think that was a line you intended to play for laughs.
But people in the theatre did laugh.
Several high profile trans writers have done articles on how online worlds, and becoming someone or something else helps them in the process of transitioning to the person they are now ( Samantha Allen’s fantastic and deeply personal article about this is no longer online, but it is referenced in this article)
Elsewhere, there have been some incredibly tragic cases of transgender people within the gaming communities committing suicide in the past year. People such as Kate von Roeder, Rachel Bryk, and other like them, do not deserve to be relegated to the catchy punchline of a comic song. These are real lives that you are portraying on the stage, and real life experiences. Please, please, do not trivialise them.
While I am not an expert on these topics, I didn’t feel comfortable sitting back and letting these moments pass unnoticed. wonder.land has finished it’s run in Manchester now, but it is already set to appear at the National Theatre in November. Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini, and Rufus Norris, you do have the chance to change all this before then. Sadly, I doubt that you will. Instead of a show that could have been a groundbreaking account of the double identities so many of us carry in this day and age, you have given us a show that punches down on the very people whose stories it wants to draw from.
Note: As I said before, I am not an expert on either mental health or gender identity. I have read through some GLAAD articles on sensitive reporting and would urge anyone writing about these topics in any form to do the same. Any mistakes that may have been made here in terminology or explanation are inadvertent, and completely my fault.