I haven’t read a play for a while. I used to read plays all the time, it was one of the things I used to enjoy doing, years ago, and The Sugar Syndrome by Lucy Prebble was one I bought back then but never read. It was recommended to me by a friend, who had either seen it or been in it or had perhaps just read it (this was many years ago), saying that it was a particularly dark and engaging piece of theatre that he reckoned I would love.
The Sugar Syndrome is a play about the internet/the dangers of the internet, particularly internet chatrooms, from way back in 2003. This is pre-social networks, this is pre-smart phones. This is back in the world of well over a decade ago when connecting to the internet made a noise like a cat pulling out its own intestines from a stomach laceration, and when being on the internet required a phone call through the landline. Ha ha ha. This text, exploring still-contemporary issues but using outdated technology, felt strangely more dated than something from the 80s where the technology that isn’t mentioned doesn’t exist. It seems odd, almost, to think of the internet as a place where people PRIMARILY interacted with strangers, where that was the whole point for many lonely people.
And the characters in The Sugar Syndrome are all lonely. Dani, the lead, is a seventeen year old girl from a wealthy background who plays in chatrooms a lot. She (what would now be called) “sexts” a young man a few years older than her, before eventually meeting up with him in real life and having some disappointing sex. She also befriends – by pretending to be an eleven year old boy – a semi-reformed paedophile, who she also meets in real life. In her offline life, her parents’ marriage is falling apart and she is recently back from a period incarcerated in a rehabilitation centre due to her severe eating disorder. She has replaced, it seems, the risky refusal to eat with risky playing on the internet. When she bonds with – semi-romantically, semi-as if he is a surrogate father – the paedophile, she treats his urges and criminal history as something abstract, until she is forced to acknowledge the violence and cruelty inherent in child sexual abuse when she sees some of the pornography that her “friend” has easily accessible on his computer.
The two men she speaks to on the internet eventually meet, and the younger man threatens to expose the paedophile to those who live around him in his edgy housing estate. There is a lot of anger in here, and a lot of anger as the result of thwarted and/or misdirected sexual energy. And I suppose that is the point of The Sugar Syndrome, and why it was recommended to me given my long-standing literary interests.
I like texts that explore the body as corrupting, I like reading about characters trapped between an intellectual, or psychological, version of themselves – an ethereal sense of existence that is rooted somewhere about a foot behind the actual location of the middle of the skull, somewhere detached from the rotting, meaty machine that makes shit and come and acid and blood, something freer and more elevated. The internet – specifically the internet as recorded in this pre-web cam age – was a place where people could be nothing but the words they spoke, nothing but the idea of themselves that they projected from their mind and into the world. Faces are gone, histories are gone, scars are gone, fears are gone, the size of the penis is different, the age, the gender, the body shape of the person is gone, is anything: this old internet, pre-selfies, pre-social media presences larger than insurance contracts, this old internet was detached from the world in an unhealthy way. And it’s still there, I suppose, but now that the internet is mass market, these shadier bits have lost their sparkle and their allure. The gentrification of the internet is what this play from a decade ago has made me aware of.
A lot of people are complaining at the moment about the loss of the “character” of parts of London, particularly Soho, the erstwhile sex and porn district. If the internet is Soho, the sex cinemas and the brothels are still there, but there’s also a fucking Wahaca, a Pain Quotidien and a fucking Byron just over the road. And sat in the window of any of those could be a colleague, lover, estranged family member or political opponent. In the Soho of today, where Old Compton Street is full of wooly grandmothers on their way to Miss Saigon, the furtive diver into the room of the red light has to be far more furtive and may thus abandon his journey through fear of not being furtive enough. It is like that with the internet. You can dive in and disappear amongst the sins it offers, but there is a surface world that also offers a lot of pleasure. Would you rather get your cock sucked by a people-trafficked Eastern European or have a lovely little cocktail in Cafe Boheme? It is like that with the internet, with its gentrification. What it basically means is that it’s harder to hide the things one wants to hide, so people stop doing them (or do them elsewhere, perhaps more dangerously). These recesses of the internet explored by The Sugar Syndrome are not so relevant any more. Just as no innocent who accidentally wanders north of Shaftesbury Avenue is going to appear on Oxford Street a month later with raging chlamydia and a smack habit, no one who wanders onto the internet is going to make friends with paedos unless they really, really, go out of their way to do so.
Maybe, back in the early ’00s, the internet was the devil’s playground. Now it’s photographs of holidays, it’s how much fucking exercise people have done and it’s how happy everyone is with everything all the time.
The Sugar Syndrome is an interesting piece, and it raises some interesting ideas. Hence why I’ve just written 1,000 words, effortlessly, for the first time in months. Thank you, Lucy Prebble, for giving me something to write about.
But now I have to go to work again.