Arts Review Theatre

Review: POPPY – a ‘made-for-the-internet’ Theatre Experiment

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Exploring the perils of activism and social media for young people today.

When Kuo Pao Kun wrote his environmentalism-focused play The Silly Little Girl and The Funny Old Tree in 1987, the internet had only just been invented and global warming still one of the furthest things on people’s minds. But 33 years on, at the height of the social media age and climate change one of the most pressing issues of the new generation, one wonders how that script might have played out if it were written today.

That’s something that theatre practitioner Ang Xiao Ting and artist Jean Ferry have decided to explore, with POPPY, a theatrical experiment created in response to Kuo Pao Kun’s work, as a means to engage teenagers in climate-focused narratives. Directed and co-written by Xiao Ting (alongside Zoea Tania Chen), POPPY follows the titular protagonist (also played by Xiao Ting), a shy teenager who posts photos of trees and doodles on her Instagram account with a subtle message of environmentalism. When her beloved grandmother (Tan Beng Chiak) is sent to the hospital, her world begins to crumble apart, at least, until she finds a new way to further her environmental cause – saving her grandmother’s favourite ‘funny old tree’ from being knocked down.

As a theatrical experiment, POPPY still has space to grow, in particular with regards to the script and structure of the performance, with multiple subplots and plenty of issues that never really get explored. Much of the experience’s first part, for example, is spent attempting to establish the relationship between Poppy and her grandmother in pre-filmed sequences, but we never really get a sense of just how close they are to each other to really understand Poppy’s plight. Poppy herself is a bit of an oddball character, perhaps inspired by Kuo’s original ‘silly little girl’, and at times makes for a difficult character to root for. A choice to flashback and forward to a scene where Poppy has done a sit-in atop the tree also further confuses the narrative.

Where POPPY sparks interest most though is its live interactive segment, where audiences are invited to be part of a Telegram group Poppy sets up to receive advice on her various ‘campaigns’. Responding to select messages audiences send in real time, Xiao Ting’s improv and reaction skills are put to the test, and reveals just how difficult it can be to navigate the vast world of social media, beset by both trolls and well-meaning advice, a barrage of information that’s sure to overload any young teenager. POPPY even sends audiences a step by step guide on how to ensure Telegram anonymity on the app to encourage honest and unfiltered messaging.

POPPY’s multidisciplinary presentation also helps break the monotony of a single style, at times incorporating hand-drawn doodles onscreen to tie in with Poppy’s hobby and personality. And most admirable of all is how willing it is to question how loudmouthed environmentalists (such as Greta Thunberg) may not always be the right solution to every situation, and how divisive their actions can be, despite often being hailed as an environmental heroine of her generation by the liberal media.

At the heart of POPPY is the simple message that the teenager of today lives in a vastly confusing and altogether terrifying world. Not only does she have to face the barrage of opinions and messages on social media, each offering different solutions and advice when she needs help; she’s also beset by the ever-present sense of doom as it feels like the end of the world in nigh, be it the impending death of her grandmother, or the loss of familiar spaces and places in the name of progress. POPPY could afford to do with more tweaking to its script, but as an experiment, it raises some interesting, modern points that are likely to resonate with teenagers of today, and provide useful topics for discussion and reflection on their own influences from social media. 

POPPY played on 13th December 2020 on Zoom. 

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