We have all been there: sat in the theatre enjoying a play and someone decides to get their phone out to check social media, take a picture, or record the performance. The bright glare of the screen lights up like a Christmas tree and causes a distraction, not only to those sat behind them, but also the actors on stage. Breaking almost every rule of theatre etiquette, this is becoming increasingly commonplace as modern audiences feel the need to document every aspect of their lives. It makes me despair.
Javaad Alipoor’s Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran is a theatrical experience that surprisingly encourages this behaviour. Rather than being told to turn your phone off when you enter the theatre, you are advised to install Instagram, asked to follow @ShoppingMallsInTehran, and given HOME’s wi-fi code.
Although using social media is not a necessary part of being able to watch the show, it drastically enhances the experience. This is a multimedia play that uses Instagram as a narrative device. Despite the images and videos being relayed on a vast wall of television screens, scrolling through rich kids’ Instagram profiles, loaded with images of preposterous wealth, drives home their absurdity. In an increasingly disparate climate, this glimpse into ‘how the other half lives’ is as enticing as it is appalling.
Javaad Alipoor creates a singular Instagram profile to provide the frame narrative of his play. Rich Kids essentially tells the story of Mohammad Hossein Rabbani-Shirazi, the 21 year old grandson of a high-ranking religious cleric in Iran, by taking you backwards through his Instagram profile, and further back into his life. Along with his girlfriend, Parivash Akbarzadeh, Hossein was involved in a fatal car crash when they crashed a yellow Porche, after driving it at dangerously high speeds. They both died instantly.
It was all filmed on Instagram, as the couple sped through the streets of Tehran, boasting. #RichKidsOfTehran. Looking back through Hossein’s Instagram profile sheds more light on the circumstances surrounding the crash. A cocaine and alcohol binge, hours before he and Parivash got behind the wheel of the Porsche, is the most revealing. Again, it was posted on Instagram. With hindsight, you can see the tragic trajectory of their pretentious, self-centred showboating.
The car crash prompted a political storm to erupt in Iran. With ordinary citizens facing financial hardship as a result of the country’s economic sanctions, there is an increasing gap between the rich and poor. Ordinary civilians are struggling to survive, and the extravagant behaviour of the wealthy #RichKidsOfTehran poured fuel on the flames, causing Iran’s elites to come under fire.
By using social media, Rich Kids delivers a potent political message about entitlement, showing how digital technology fuels this divide. It also highlights the folly of needing to post every aspect of our lives online.
Instagram live is occasionally used to deliver this message. Javaad Alipoor and Kirsty Housley invite the audience to join their Instagram live feed and use this medium to bombard the audience with facts about how technology is changing our world. Housley streams her complex monologues about consumerism, using a filter to distort her face, evoking a dystopian, science fiction quality to the piece. Alongside this, Alipoor types a textual commentary, overloading the audience with detailed information; for example, that every human born since 1961 has slightly radioactive teeth.
This onslaught of statistics works well to deliver a powerful message about the devastating mark we are leaving on the planet, and how inconsequential consumer goods are when considering the wider history of the world. One million years ago, man learned to make fire. A polystyrene cup will take one million years to decompose. These facts are staggering and deliberately overwhelming. Rich Kids is a sensory assault that is designed to be confusing and thought-provoking, prompting the audience to reflect on the place of social media in their lives, and wider philosophical debates around mankind’s place in the world.
Personally, I don’t believe that the Instagram live stream works to its full potential in this piece. There is a notable time delay between Housley’s dialogue on stage, and it feeding through to Instagram feed. This causes an overlap of the two, and it is difficult to discern what is being said on either the phone, or the live performance. This could have been intentional, but I feel that some of the play’s important messages are lost because of this.
It is well known that theatres are struggling to attract younger audiences. Some have started offering special discount for under 30s. However, many theatres continue to produce content that young adults just aren’t interested in. Javaad Alipoor’s Rich Kids sets a great example of how to appeal to a younger audience. By integrating social media into the play’s narrative, and encouraging people to use their phones during the performance, it could be removing one of the barriers that can deter young adults from attending the theatre. On the night I attended, the audience was certainly younger than usual.
Rich Kids is a meticulously researched, experimental mixture of live performance and social media. It is a winning combination that is deliberately overwhelming, delivering a potent political message about entitlement and consumerism.