“A poignant, Black Mirror esc exploration into trauma, toxic workplaces and the deepest, darkest corners of the internet”
On the opening night of 2023’s Edinburgh Fringe festival, among the vast saturation of comedy, theatre, dance, music and all other kinds of artistic performances on offer, the striking, AI-designed poster and acutely relevant subject matter of the two person production, Moderation, caught my attention. So, I took to venue 236 at Greenside’s Mint Studio to sample the award-winning story of two former social media moderators, written by a hotly talked about new playwright, Rebekah King, directed by promising new emerging directors Ben Newman and Ben Fleming and produced by Milo Hynes.
The play was focused around the two moderators, who were recounting the worst moments of their experiences in the job in order to build up evidence to take legal action against Facebook for what they had to go through. This reflective, storytelling format allowed for the two actors, Ellen Trevaskiss and Michael Gillett, to switch characters over the course of the production, something that the pair did seamlessly. At times, one would take the form of the company boss in scenes where only one of the two moderators was present and at other moments they would even act as each other as they reminisced about the day they first met.
Ellen Trevaskiss and Michael Gillett’s abilities to switch performance style, both for comedic effect as they over exaggerated each other’s irritating nuances, and for powerful emotive moments as they depicted the authoritative like rule of their boss, was truly impressive and added a whole new dimension to the performance. Some clever lighting also played an important role in these switches, providing slick, visual clues to instantly change the atmosphere of the room and provide clear contrast between the past and present.
Having read the show’s description, I was pleasantly surprised at how darkly comedic the play was. It was immediately established that Ellen Trevaskiss’ character had developed a strange “coping mechanism" for her trauma which involved believing that the floor was lava and thus forcing herself and others to move across the room using laid out shirts and cushions which allowed for moments of visual comedy. The initial banter between two friends, set against the backdrop of two people severely affected by their traumatic jobs, also provided a dark humour to the early stages of the show. However, this comedic tone quickly evaporated as they dug deeper into the turmoil of life as a moderator.
The atmosphere on stage, and thus, in the crowd fell increasingly serious as the worst pieces of content they encountered were revealed. From animal abuse to child pornography, all the many terrible things that moderators have to view were discussed. Rebekah King takes you behind the curtain of online censorship and has held nothing back in highlighting the levels of cruelty that can feature in online content. This gradual shift in tone is a really effective device that puts the audience in the shoes of the moderators who, at first, are only met with more trivial matters of conspiracy theory and the everlasting nipple debate, but then get gradually get drip fed the harsher material until all their sense of shock at the worst online content has eroded away, along with their sense of self and sanity. The tone is masterfully altered throughout and almost produces an emotive crescendo as it builds to a horrifically captivating scene that will rock you to the core.
These haunting, contemporary themes of online content, conspiracy, coping mechanisms, mental health and workplace environments are explored with tact as intricate, naturalistic dialogue unpicks the insanity of exposing moderators to constant traumatic content to protect the masses of social media, while more expressive, gut-wrenching scenes highlight the harsh realities of the web’s dark corners and the unrelenting effects of trauma. The intimacy of the room and the V-shaped crowd set up added to this visceral intensity that made those harshest of scenes even more impactful.
However, the standout element of the production that left the biggest lasting impact was the connection between the two characters. The on-stage rapport between Ellen Trevaskiss and Michael Gillett allowed the audience to really indulge in the friendship between the two characters. As the play developed, so did their relationship as you were offered glimpses into how each had helped the other cope throughout their horrific time as moderators and this was truly heartwarming. It showed the audience how, even in the darkest of times, having a true friend or loved one by your side can make your situation just that little bit more bearable. It rang of famous scenes in war films such as in Saving Private Ryan where the company find solace through friendship in the most terrifying of circumstances; finding calm in the storm to comfort each other through storytelling, humour and compassion.
The comfort and companionship that the two offer each other throughout the show provides a brilliant insight into trauma bonding and the importance of human connection to combat the dissociation that the online world can create. The finale of the production brings a beautifully poignant culmination to the pair’s relationship and leaves you walking away with a heartwarming sentiment, yet with the darkness and trauma of the production’s subject matter still eating away at the back of your brain and giving you plenty of food for thought.
If you’re looking for an Edinburgh fringe show that will make you feel and make you think while highlighting some hard-hitting contemporary issues and showcasing an incredible array of talented new actors, writers, directors, and producers then Moderation is the perfect pick. However, you will have to act quickly as the show is only on between August 4th and August 12th.
Tickets are available here.