Expelled – by Rosalind Butler

When and where:

~ Cape Town: Baxter Studio Theatre from February 7 to March 2, 2024
~ Johannesburg: The Market Theatre from March 6 to 31, 2024

Bookings for both: Webtickets

Producer: How Now Brown Cow www.hownowbrowncow.co.za 
Director: Craig Freimond
Cast: Charmaine Weir-Smith, Antony Coleman and Nicolas Hattingh    

The construct of privacy is being increasingly eroded by social media and in Rosalind Butler’s new play, Expelled, we see the shredding of the fabric of a family. Veteran thespians Antony Coleman and Charmaine Weir-Smith play Rich and Lou, the parents of Alex (Nicolas Hattingh) who is attending a larney school. The school is beyond their means but social status must be maintained at all costs in order to sustain their bubble of privilege.  Alex becomes involved in what he considers a prank. It goes viral and the threat of being expelled hangs over his head and the family.

Lou becomes increasingly unhinged. The men flank her, dumbstruck by her outbursts as things fall apart. Mother and son are united by their boredom, living their lives online, in the shadow of Alpha man Rich. Alex has performance anxiety, with his alpha dad hovering in the background and his mom and her clingy helicopter style of parenting. She is a cringe mom – insisting on selfies and then posting them without her son’s permission.  The toxic masculinity and co-dependency at home, at school, manning up to his peer group and girlfriend, provides a tipping point for what occurs to Alex.

The production design by Kieran McGregor (set, lighting, costume, video concept) sets up a neutral canvas, a bland living room, into which the debris of their lives is vividly projected. Production spoiler alert. There is a sequence where we see mom (Weir-Smith), Lou sucked, into the vortex of Facebook, with Ravel’s Boléro pounding out its hypnotic refrain. Images and fragments of dialogue are flashing before her on the screen of cyberspace. Where is her reality? I felt giddy, unsteady watching Lou on stage as she loses her physical and emotional balance. She is living out her desires through other people – their holidays, food, relationships – even if some of it is fake. I loved this scene and would have liked more of this in the production – imaging the jagged dissonance of social media- scrolling and wiping endlessly on a loop. Zombie Scrolling Syndrome is a term coined by the McAfee security company, in 2016, to describe mobile phone addiction. The Boléro scene nails Lou’s compulsive and obsessive behaviour and her increasing hysteria as the play progresses [see featured image on this page].

Charmaine Weir-Smith, Antony Coleman and Nicolas Hattingh (who is 19) work well as an ensemble cast, manifesting a flummoxed family. I attended a preview performance as I was not able to be at the opening. The visuals (lovely cameo on-screen performance from Graham Hopkins as the headmaster of Alex) were seamlessly interwoven with the performances on stage. Kudos to Craig Freimond for his direction in blending the visuals, stage and on-screen performances. The audience at the preview was riveted. There was a large component of young men- around 18 and 19. I am guessing as they are contemporaries of Hattingh. I was watching them, watching what was unfolding on stage, nodding to each other. Clearly these are scenes that they can relate to. A rapturous standing ovation ensued.

Expelled is pertinent for teens AND their parents. I think what this play conveys so well, is how the stealth of social media is multi-generational. Expelled is an issue play and these are important issues. I feel that the script could do with a trim and in terms of length and that some of the dialogue could be pruned.

This play was commissioned during Covid, by How Now Brown Cow Productions, when we were subject to tough lockdown restrictions. It was a time when our activities in the physical world had shrunk. Social media became a safe space to commune. It is interesting that this play was birthed during that time- before many of us were not familiar with platforms like Zoom.

Social media is having a negative impact across generations and although it has the incredible ability to connect us – like it did in the pandemic- it is becoming increasingly hazardous as it is becoming embedded in our lives and we are embedded in it. This play is a vital exploration of the noxiousness of social media and how people can get caught up in a viral frenzy. Erasure is not possible in the wake of digital footprints in the cloud of cyberspace. We cannot shred or burn sensitive documents like we used to.

As I write this, I am reading increasing reports of doxing – outing people by publishing private information online, with malicious intent. For instance, WhatsApp neighbourhood and friend groups are being infiltrated and details of users are being relayed on the internet. It is being reported what they have said.  Private conversations are being made public. It is terrifying. Of course, one shouldn’t say anything that one doesn’t want repeated but people do share things in what they think are private conversations. In the play, what Alex and his friends do, is disgusting. Social media notwithstanding, this prank is a no-no. This is powerfully underscored in this play. Excelled is an unsettling cautionary morality tale, igniting essential conversations in the vortex of social media.

Selfie time: Charmaine Weir-Smith and Nicolas Hattingh in Expelled, by Rosalind Butler, Baxter Theatre, Cape Town, February 2024. Photo by Daniel Rutland Manners. Supplied.

✳ Featured image: Charmaine Weir-Smith in Expelled by Rosalind Butler, on at the Baxter, Cape Town, February 2024. Photo by Daniel Rutland Manners. Supplied.