At first, the rise of social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram seemed to herald nothing more than a new kind of annoying exercise in narcissism and a devastating black hole for productivity. But, as we all know by now, they had a far darker side: although those of us who were young and vulnerable when these networks emerged are now, we hope, informed enough to use them with care, younger people, who live much of their lives online, have a large and potentially dangerous platform from which to broadcast their immature and stupid mistakes. The negative repercussions of social media aren’t limited to embarrassing photos or inane political rants—teens are being charged with cyber-bullying and, as was the case for two teens in India, a leaked video can lead to a national scandal.
Anupama Chandrasekhar’s play Free Outgoing is partly inspired by the latter, the story of two teens who videotaped themselves having sex and triggered a moral panic in India over sex-crazed teens when the video went viral.
In the current Toronto production by Nightwood Theatre, Anusree Roy plays Malini, a widowed mother of two teenagers—a son Sharan, played by Andrew Lawrie, and a daughter, Deepa, whom we never actually meet. But she’s still the centre of attention, since the play revolves around her sexual encounter with a classmate and the viral video it produced. Soon, Malini’s family is at the centre of a scandal, and as the play progresses, their conservative society closes in and cuts off any escape plan Malini can come up with. Throughout all of this, Deepa remains cloistered in her room, behind a door bearing the tatters of a Bollywood poster Malini tore off in a fit of rage. Secondary characters, like Deepa’s principal and Malini’s neighbour (Ellora Patnaik playing double duty), demonstrate the city of Chennai’s intolerance for “immorality,” and male characters, like the father of Deepa’s boyfriend (Ash Knight) and Malini’s socially awkward colleague (Sanjay Talwar), demonstrate the patriarchal double standard when it comes to assigning punishment, and the way the male gaze can objectify a young, sexual, female body.
Chandrasekhar’s script has a lot of strengths: Deepa’s absence from the story she brought into being is consistently felt, and Malini’s increasing desperation is palpable, especially thanks to Roy’s powerhouse performance. Her Malini is always at full-tilt, whether trying to charm her way into a sale of her jewellery-cleaning product, pleading her family’s case, or watching the video in question with a mixture of disgust, shame, and sadness. The play’s conclusion, which finally sees Malini weak and submissive, packs a heartbreaking punch.
Other areas of the production don’t measure up to the potentially crackling script. Director Kelly Thornton presents the material in an entirely straightforward manner, with few technical elements and a very realistic set. A script dealing with such dramatic material could certainly support—in fact almost calls for—a more atmospheric production. Instead, the production comes off as rather flat, and it’s only after letting the themes and ideas sit that this story from across the globe really hits home.