Comment Is Free
Everybody hates Alistair Cooper and they're not afraid of saying it.
Starring Rachael Stirling (Detectorists, Capital) and Tobias Menzies (Games of Thrones, Outlander) alongside a cast of hundreds, Hilary Cooper watches her husband's story get chewed up and spat out by an unscrupulous media and a divided public. The whole nation competes to be the quickest to comment in this thrilling portrayal of the sound and fury of modern British politics.
Written by James Fritz. Produced and directed by Becky Ripley.
This was an excellent play, using voices to great effect, as a multitude of comments, rather like a Facebook feed of some fury, or a Twitter storm.
One never is actually told why Alistair Cooper is so disliked. He’s a political commentator and journalist; he appears on Question Time and Any Questions; he says provocative things which are to do with race and immigration. But the fine details are not there. All we hear of him is a voice, every so often, on his answering machine, saying he is out and cannot take the call, and please leave a message.
In a way, this gives a Kafkaesque feel to the play, rather like "The Trial", where you never quite know what Joseph K has been accused of. But in the case of Cooper, it seems he is given to inflammatory remarks, just the right side of the law, about matters of race and immigration and foreigners.
Meanwhile the chorus of hate grows. People seem to egg on people to say nastier and nastier things. Death threats are issued. Someone should get rid of him. He should die. He doesn’t deserve to live. He must be silenced.
And then he is silenced. He is killed, not yards from his door, by a maniac wielding a knife who says he is doing it “for all of you, who wanted this”.
There are brief two handers, interspersed, where his wife speaks to her brother, or when the police come round, and moments of monologue when she speaks, in grief, and in anger, to his answering machine, the only way she can still speak to him.
But most of the play is the chorus of disapproval. Although once he is dead, they are swift to disassociate themselves from his killer. Suddenly the right of free speech is more important than silencing someone deemed obnoxious. They may not have agreed with Cooper, but he had a right to say what he did. Freedom of speech is paramount.
The neighbour who went to help the dying man happened to have a phone. She took a video, released later online of him lying there dying, while waiting for the ambulance she called. She regrets this, but it goes viral, and is unstoppable. She gets threats, she apologises to his family, she deeply regrets her instinct, as she puts everything online, it is a habit of hers.
And his wife reads his writings and is appalled at how ugly the things Alistair said were. She is asked to attend a vigil of freedom, candlelit in Trafalgar square, to commemorate him; she goes, but her speech is a call for a gentler, less confrontational, kind of journalism. He loved her husband deeply, but thinks that the best legacy he could leave would be a departure from toxic speech, and a much kinder, more thoughtful speech.
Some of the chorus of voices is touched, some critical. And so the voices go on, fading but one suspects, still there.
David Hepworth commented:
" On the face of it, it’s the story of Alistair Cooper, a provocative newspaper columnist who gets what some people think is coming to him. In reality, it’s actually about the back and forth of public opinion, as it drifts from anger to remorse to sentiment and back to anger again."
"Award-winning producer-director Becky Ripley has done a spectacular job of orchestrating a latter-day Greek chorus of four actors, a handful of newsreaders and hundreds of crowd-sourced contributors from across the country."
As a one time moderator of a politics group, I remember trying to stem a toxic argument in the group. Insults were trading. Hate speech erupted like a volcano. People behave on social media how they would rarely behave across a table, having a cup of coffee. Insulated behind their keyboard, they lose than connection, the personal element, in their communication.
And yet they can also be touched, and leave the most sympathetic comments at moments of grief, disaster, devastation.
It is this volatility, this extraordinary way in which people behave – or misbehave – on social media which was perfectly captured in this play. It was an exception piece of work, leaving behind a feeling that at times people are close to the fringes of hell, and that social media has unleashed the ability for frenzied, uncaring, unthinking communications.
It is, of course, human beings who are capable of great good, and great evil, and social media is merely another conduit for this expression of the varieties of the human conditions; a mirror reflecting society back on itself.