The Economist | Review
Jana Perkovic | Guerrilla Semiotics
11 Dec, 2011
With The Economist, the little MKA theatre draws to a close an impressive year. Pushing for new writing in all forms (domestic, international, staged, rehearsedly read, commissioned, unearthed), its effort in getting dramatic text seen and heard has really made it apparent how little dramatic text one could get to before. We did not know what we did not have, yet it seems indispensible now, and that is certainly a great compliment to the MKA.
The Economist, a theatrically astute meditation on Anders Behring Breivik, is one of the most exciting theatre works I have seen this year. The writing, joyous and rich, has been put on stage with great dramaturgical and directorial intelligence. There have been a few kinds of dramaturgy which this country has had a lot of accomplishment in: the anxious surrealism (Katz, The Rabble), the middle-class dreamy realism (Holloway, Hardie), the high-concept performance (Elbow Room, certain kinds of puppetry and circus); but until this work I do not think I have seen any political theatre worth writing home about. Even in its own, suburbanly evasive way, The Economist points to a homegrown way of tackling big questions that, on its own, is enough of a reason to recommend it. The season has been extended, and closes in a week’s time.
In a nutshell, The Economist is based on the life and work of Anders Behring Breivik, the 32-year-old Norwegian who, earlier in 2011, killed 77 people in the Oslo area, largely teenagers on a summer camp associated with the Norwegian Labor Party. Fuelling Breivik’s one-man terrorist attack was a murky soup of right-wing ideas and beliefs: islamophobia, anti-feminism, white supremacy, cultural conservatism, ultranationalism, anti-multiculturalism and antipathy to something called ‘cultural Marxism’. Interestingly, only days before the premiere of the play, a panel of experts found Breivik insane, rather than a cold-blooded murderer, re-igniting the debate on whether a white European enacting right-wing beliefs is immune from the label of terrorism.
It seems that the consensus is that, no, he can only be an exception – Breivik’s misdeeds cannot be equated with his entire civilization, the way Al Qaeda for many synecdochically represents an entire violent, West-hating Islam. Alison Croggon thinks this is bad, Melbourne’s tabloid press (which kicked a small fuss over the play) that it is only natural. However, The Economist intervenes in this debate rather interestingly, bringing to life the many obsessions, delusions and shall we say quirks of Breivik’s existence. Desire to join the army; militant anti-feminism and general inability to treat women as human beings; delusional paranoias; fears of disease, extending to wearing a mask indoors and refusing to eat his mother’s food; obsession with his appearance; and, of course, a raging conviction that Europe must be defended from a range of evils (Marxists, Arabs, women) by the power of Knights Templar et cetera.
The extent to which Breivik’s madness is fuelled by societal input is entirely up for discussion, not least because he has, so far, acted in isolation. There is no army of Breivik. I am not sure that equating one kind of violence with another is the right methodology to discuss the broader questions of cultural orientalism, economic and cultural consequences of colonialism, and the general inadequacy of neo-liberal economics, fuelled rather more by ideology than any praxis, to nurture developing economies into prosperity. But, while MKA artistic director, and author of The Economist, Tobias Manderson-Galvin, was quoted in the said local tabloid press saying that Breivik was “no madder than John Howard or Peter Costello”, the play does not in any significant way say the same. Quite the contrary, The Economist is a portrait of a delusional psychotic. It produced an even less tangible connection between a society and an individual than The Baader Meinhof Complex did in regards to its own Red Army Faction – and the latter was generally understood as a thorough critique of its subjects.
What happens in the play, though? Breivik has been renamed Andrew Bolt Berwick (a mash-up of one of Breivik’s pseudonyms and our own right-wing rabble-rouser Andrew Bolt), but otherwise it is a biopic. A series of vignettes from Breivik’s life – imaginatively dramatised, with great recourse to his many, many, many writings, from diaries to manifestos – is presented in almost-chronological order. Breivik held in the police for graffitying. Breivik undergoes plastic surgery in the USA. Breivik takes steroids in the gym. Swedish neo-Nazi singer Saga gives her condolences to the bereaved families. Breivik joins a hunting club. Breivik buys a gun in Prague. Breivik buys prostitutes, but is unable to have sex with them. There is pop-flavoured humour in each and every scene, drawn out by the strong performances and snappy direction. It is driven by Breivik’s loopy, increasingly unhinged worldview. The world of the play morphs from a hipster Scandinavia into a semi-surreal Image-Fiction of sorts, in which our own reality is mirrored through the ironic prism of psychotic delusion. It is beautiful throughout, but that is part of the irony.
The irony here is of a particular, post-2006, hipster kind. The entire cast is clad in a weird, IKEA-coloured uniform of beige pants and red jumpers, supposedly clothes Breivik was wearing when arrested, but also a colour palette of Scandinavia if there ever was one. There is a deer head on the wall. There is a Norwegian flag. Picture-perfect Scandinavia is among the first things mentioned in the text, and it is not the Scandinavia of welfare state and progressive taxation, but a Scandinavia of designer furniture and Roxette. In terms of mood and feel, this production takes not so much the political-satirical angle, but a detachedly-twee atmosphere-building found in all those films featuring Jason Schwartzman or Michael Cera. In other words, this is not a critique of some political evils of contemporary Norway, as much as a parodic picture of some dreamy, dislocated, retirement-village-like foreign land. The real event that is the pretext to this text seems rather accidental to the imaginative universe created atop. What happens in the play is rendered with such ironic over-the-topness as if the fact that it really happened is either uncertain or accidental to the text.
Van Badham, the dramaturg and director of the play, is a major contributing force to the success of the production. The text has been pruned into a tight, dramaturgically cohesive work to an extent rarely seen in unfunded independent theatre in Australia. Taking enormous advantage of the simple space, and a few props, the cast of six announce each scene with its stage directions, use the props at hand to create a live score to each scene (effective, engrossing and much commented upon), and inhabit a vast range of characters gender-neutrally. Cast as Breivik is Zoe Dawson, a tall, blonde, slim and female human being, while the remaining cast is largely dark-haired, bearded, male. Masking tape Xs mark the location of objects.
All this Brechtianism has a funny effect of safety: we are simply not allowed to plunge into empathy for Andrew Berwick, the delusional right-wing terrorist. But Brechtian inquiry into systemic conditions of individual problems is, as I wrote earlier, not included: very, very few connections are ever drawn between Berwick the individual and Europe as a social context. In one, the family-friendly face of the neo-Nazi underground, Swedish singer Saga, expresses shock and horror at being nominated one of Breivik’s idols, in a honeyed, toasty voice, and ends with some best wishes, throaty and motherly-sounding and warm, for a strong white race, and a Nazi salute.
More moments of this sort would have been in consonance with the production’s Brechtianism worn-on-sleeve, but they would have also counterpointed some of the stranger effects of the staging. For example, it is very hard not to sympathise with Zoe Dawson, whose girliness makes Andrew Berwick look like a helpless victim, and neutralises the violence directed towards women (of which there is much). Thus there is an extra layer of irony in this production: while the text is largely driven by the surreal humour of Breivik’s delusions (and ironically detached in its own right), the staging takes to the letter much of our (pre- or just conscious) sympathy for him, and depicts Andrew Berwick in a way so easy to empathise with that, if we shut our ears, this really could be a neo-Nazi text in which a young blonde woman is tragically led to her own demise by a crooked society of short, dark, bearded men. Something akin to The Birth of a Nation, or The Sound of Music (in Zizek’s reading).
In between these layers of irony and a scaffold of utter craft, I don’t know that it is possible to even talk about an overall effect. I might speculate that we are distanced from Anders Breivik the terrorist, but encouraged to empathise with the poor Zoe Dawson, who happens to commit exactly the same murders as Breivik, but in fiction. In this reading, we can indulge in our little anti-social fantasies while never having to admit that they follow through to real deaths. Or, perhaps, I could conclude that Zoe Dawson’s Berwick is cut off from his social context while the playwright itself, and the entire theatre-going conversation around the play insists on Breivik as a symptom of a right-wing conspiracy. Therefore, the play sells itself to an audience as a work of ideological certainty, while it really tells a much more complex story of psychological disturbance, effectively subverting its own promise. Or, that this is a complex issue where the goal of the artist is to say: “See, Herald Sun accuses the arts of being a waste of taxpayer’s money on left-wing propaganda, but what we have really created, and continue to create, is complex and sophisticated analysis of a troubled human being, and we do that with our men as well as with yours…”. In this reading, the entire political purpose of the play might be to get an upper hand with the right-wing population of Australia and the right-wing media itself, all while having a very long laugh at the poor delusional Breivik…
All of these readings are possible, and I don’t think any one excludes the others. It is certainly a work wrapped up in multiple ironies, far and far beyond anything that was happening when David Foster Wallace was writing about irony. It is, in a certain sense, totally heartless; and it is also, in another sense, amoral – irony is a disavowal.
It is also troublingly close to the in-yer-face forms that were blossoming in Europe throughout the 1990s, that have been superseded there, and that I cannot praise for originality for that reason. There seems to be some kind of law in place that Australia lags only ever about 10 years behind what is happening in the mainstream elsewhere (the margin is another story, more complex), and I would like to see that law revoked.
But, for all its moral shortcomings, The Economist remains political theatre, and more interesting political theatre than anything I’ve seen in Australia in a very long time. It is also technically excellent. And I will always rather see something as bewilderingly thought-provoking as The Economist than something I know I will simply like.
I need to qualify my last paragraph: there is a moral shortcoming to this text, and it is its detached irony. The problem with all irony, but particularly the post-1970s irony of young people, and even more particularly of the one exercised by twenty-somethings in Australia in 2011, is that it is a self-conscious irony fuelled by:
1) naïveté about how the world works, fuelled by general lack of variegated and diverse life experience (suburban upbringing, lack of international travel, Australian media isolation from wider world and limited participation in social, political, etc global trends)
2) a sense of personal deficiency born out of a perceived absence of real life experience (the meaning of which is personally defined, but also societally as 1) )
3) a self-consciousness born out of 2)
4) an awareness that an entire cohort is feeling 3), and therefore this collective sense of individual deficiency is statistically incorrect, which results in
5) a suspicion that, if the feeling of 4) is universal, then somewhere down the line we have all been lied to, and there is no real life to be experienced in the first place…
…which brings to life the particular unreality and aestheticism in creating the hipster Scandinavia in The Economist, and is a troubling angle from which to be political. But:
6) all of this is further complicated by any international travel one does, or real experience (in the form of armed conflict, fame, enormous personal wealth, association with famous figures or places or events, etc). Such experiences, if in sufficiently small doses, add enough social capital to one’s life to get them ahead in the rat race of irony. If I may draw on personal experience now, I was told by a young male theatre artist from Melbourne, once upon a time, that he feels like he needs to travel to a war zone in order to experience ‘weird shit’.
The moral issue is that, in The Economist, the Breivik massacre and events leading up to it, are in no small dose presented as some such weird shit.
The question of sensitivity/respect should be brought up now. It is not-a-little-bit alarming that almost every review I have read of the work insinuates that there is some political analysis in place here, although, to their credit, they all specify that it is in the service of dark humour. Is this disrespectful? Quite probably so, actually.
But how does one show respect to something one does not understand? Certainly not through false sympathy, in which one draws on one’s experience of pet hamster dying in order to conjure up emotions likely to experience at a massacre… There is a great deal of such theatre in Australia (and with a good justification, for this is a very peaceful country with a keen interest nonetheless in the dramatic human interest story, from however afar), all with political pretensions, and most of it is shit. It is falsely felt, its emotions insincere, its analysis inadequate. The naive irony of The Economist is, paradoxically if you wish, a more genuineresponse to a tragedy than false reverence would have been, in which we stand in silence while we feel the hysterical urge to giggle.