#Selflove: Shallow waters

The irony of Insta stares at us from our phones as we scroll down one picture, one vapid Insta-story at a time. There are academics with PhDs posting daily snippets of their lives with perky commentary a thin veil for a desperate need for validation. There’s the pretty girls and their endless selfies, the topless buff guys punting their workout routine in rapid pitter-patter, the vegan yoga acolyte alternating photos of new breakfast smoothie concoctions and namaste knots at sunrise, the arts reviewing site pleading for readers…

We’re all there, and we hate ourselves for it. Yet we waste hours of our daily lives agonising over getting the right photos and shooting little videos of utterly mundane shit that takes up billions of terrabytes of server space requiring undersea fibre optic cables and specialised buildings and aircon and all the electricity and carbon that goes with it. For what? A tiny serotonin shot when we see the likes.

So a show titled #selflove holds promise of delving into this this need for validation and the often pathetic ways we seek it in a world in which we increasingly fear ourselves in flesh and blood and so reach out to strangers from behind the screens of our digital isolation.

There’s rich pickings here; how our desires and fears are also manipulated by the same mega corporations that create the means to satisfy them instantly and meaninglessly. The void of digital meaning played out in our palms. There’s an entire philosophy course right there.

Ursula Botha, a festival newbie, takes a bite at this netherworld of narcissism. Playing a handful of different characters, she delivers tangenital stories that touch on Insta-envy, body-shaming, and marital infidelity. Amidst the light comedy in the character sketches, the appearance of an Egyptian woman subjected to an arranged – and emotionally abusive – marriage, was a brave leap out of the comfort zone of Afrikaaner poppie, Sandton kugel, and preppie #selflove ‘founder’.

The Egyptian character was moving and discomfiting but she is signified through the use of a khimar to cover her head, which is an Islamic custom, yet the character talks of going to church. There is a significant Christian population in Egypt and there are Christian churches that believe married women should cover their hair, but in a show such as this, where one prop is used to denote a universally-viewed characteristic of a nationality or religion, it was confusing. Nonetheless, she was still the best character, and revealed Ursula is able to push herself out of her comfort zone. For a bit. The rest of the show displayed safer choices and so never really hit home. The laughs were muted, the satire muddled, leaving us unsure whether #selflove is empowering or just another excuse for people to take near-pornographic selfies of themselves in swimsuits.

Perhaps the dearth of plays about something so ubiquitous as Insta is that it’s the digital natives who are best equipped to reflect on it. But digital natives are still young. They have yet to put in the hours necessary to master their medium – the body – or be able to place themselves far enough outside of it to critique it properly.

Ursula Botha suffers this problem. Her self-penned script is mostly fun but remains in the shallows. It put its face underwater now and again but never dives deep enough to uncover the pearls glinting at the bottom amidst the swaying dark suffocating forests of kelp at the bottom. Even so, #selflove could better hold our attention if she used her body. The acting is largely from the neck up, the characters aren’t fully inhabited, and so neither is the stage.

But we still want her back next year, only, this time with a director.

#selflove is written, performed, and directed by Ursula Botha.

It plays at Dicks until Sunday (7 July). Bookings and details here.

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