Review: The Economist, Cherry Cherry ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Review: The Economist, Cherry Cherry

The great holiday guillotine has now slammed down across Ms TN's diary, and so last week I saw my last shows for the year. And then, in the way of the these things, I promptly came down with a cold. I blame Melbourne's increasingly absurd weather for this, as much as the exigencies of the end of the year: this city has always, admittedly, been proverbial for its changeability ("if you don't like Melbourne's weather, wait five minutes") but in the past month it's been pushing capriciousness to excess. I am thinking of investing in a porter to carry the galoshes, mac, heated gloves, snow goggles etc that are the essential accessories to any well-prepared Melbourne summer wardrobe. The stress of deciding what to wear has practically made me a slave to laudanum.

For all this, I managed to dress (even without a maid to secure my corsets) and saw three shows, all from independent companies (the last a co-production with the Malthouse, of which more in due course). I know I keep saying that diversity is the strength of our theatre culture, but I say so for good reason: it's difficult to think of three more different productions, in approach, intent and theme. If they had all been diversely bad, Ms TN's vapours might have become melodramatic, but the public was saved such tedious demonstrations. I also keep saying that if you like theatre, Melbourne is the place to be; and last week was a neat illustration of why.

I finally caught up with MKA, the new writer's theatre that opened in September last year and has continued at a blinding pace since, with punishing schedules of readings and productions, under the artistic directorship of the magnificently named Tobias Manderson-Galvin. Taking a leaf from the original Royal Court, its avowed intent is the development of plays through productions and readings, and it has been making waves all year through a series of temporary venues. The Economist, by Manderson-Galvin himself, was MKA's final show for 2011.

This production made waves of a different kind, as it is based on the case of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian right wing extremist and racist who murdered 77 people in July this year. The play caused a brief tabloid sensation before it opened when Manderson-Galvin was pilloried for saying that Breivik was no more insane than John Howard. The far right is touchy about Breivik, for good reason: he justified his horrific crimes in a rambling manifesto that quoted some of our own rabid luminaries, and which rehearsed some very familiar rhetoric about the fall of the west, the rise of Islam, and the evils of "cultural Marxism" and feminism.

In The Economist. our hero is the fictional - but not so far from factual - Andrew Bolt Berwick. (Andrew Berwick was one of Breivik's pseudonyms). Directed as a work of agitprop by Van Badham, it is poor theatre at its best: performed in the corner of a hall, with props hanging from the wall marked by red crosses, it's a fluidly satirical take on the political delusions of extremism, which opened just as Breivik was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic by the Norwegian justice system.

Breivik's diagnosis of insanity prompts the question why, given the consciously inflammatory and frankly psychotic nature of so much extreme right wing discourse, he is considered a lunatic exception, while parallel Islamic extremists - Osama Bin Laden, for example - are considered to be emblematic of the entirety of Islam. Surely a rational analysis would find that Bin Laden might be considered equally insane, equally exceptional (or, alternatively, that Breivik is equally typical)? Andrew Bolt warns, just as Breivik did, against the threat Islam (or socialism, or feminism) poses to western civilisation, and equates Islam with terrorism. No one is suggesting that Bolt is a terrorist, but his contempt for accuracy and evidence in his arguments is symptomatic of an endemic toxicity in political discussion. And it's a contempt that itself produces delusion.

At issue is whether Breivik's violence is a logical extension of extreme rhetoric or whether he is a monstrous and insane exception whose delusions had nothing to do with his ideology. It's a fascinating question which goes to the heart of contemporary democratic politics, especially since the extreme Right began to go mainstream in the 1990s.

An unnamed aide to George W. Bush made a central plank of political delusion explicit in a Baudrillardian quote in the New York Times in 2004: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." Reality, claims this delusion, is what "we" make it; uncomfortable facts - such as the debacle of the Iraq invasion - can be airbrushed away.

FOX News, shock jocks and fact-happy zones such as Bolt's column are all symptoms of this rejection of evidence in favour of an ideologically-shaped "reality", in which the ideals of the Enlightenment are all sucked into a black hole of irrationality. As Goya pointed out so presciently, the sleep of reason produces monsters: folly and ignorance are not only what happens when reason is abandoned, but are its dark subconscious. The rise of fundamentalisms is not a rejection of modernity, but one of its inevitable results.

The skewed debates about climate change, the global economy, even evolution, are all symptoms of this radical retreat from evidential fact: an aggressively expressed "reality", as our own Alan Jones demonstrates so often, claims to trump evidence every time. In today's media overload the soundbite reigns supreme, and complex argument and reasoned thinking do very badly. As Goebbels understood so well, paranoia sells: people are afraid of the modern world, and retreat into easily-understood simplicities that confirm their deepest fears and desires.

It's these larger questions that inform The Economist. Manderson-Galvin suspends judgment on Breivik, and instead explores his paranoid world with wit and some grim insight, collaging and extending from Breivik's own documentation. Some of it - Breivik's obsession with the Knights Templar, for instance - is frankly unhinged. Some - his nagging sense of inferiority, his use of plastic surgery to make him look more Aryan - is pitiful. Some - the alienation expressed in his obsession with World of Warcraft - is the stuff of every cliche about alienated geeks. And some, to anyone with the slightest knowledge of contemporary right wing radicalism, from Glenn Beck to the English Defence League, is sinisterly familiar. Step by inexorable step, we watch Berwick's descent into delusion, and from delusion into horror.

The play is sharply performed by six actors, each crossing character and gender, and features some very nifty chorus work, with the very blonde Zoey Dawson playing Berwick. Badham's direction is swift, moving from horror to comedy in an eyeblink; in a Brechtian touch, settings are announced at the beginning of every scene, and it's punctuated by song. It's almost guiltily entertaining, permitting its bleak subtext to bloom darkly in the minds of its audience. Most importantly, it does us the courtesy of refusing to moralise: we are left to reach our own conclusions. Highly recommended.

A is for Atlas's Cherry Cherry is, in one of those synchronicities, the luminous answer to the darknesses of people such as Breivik. It's billed as a "Dining Room Tale", and includes a delicious home-cooked dinner, prepared by the performer, Neda Rahmani, her partner Marrs Coiro and the director and writer, Xan Coleman. The idea is simplicity itself: we are invited into Neda's home, a loft in Thornbury, to hear the story of her life.

Born in Iran of a Mauritian mother and Iranian father, Neda (first name terms come with the territory) came to Australia as a child after the Iranian Revolution. A percussionist and dancer, she is an experienced performer, and by the end had all her guests enthusiastically and uninhibitedly helping with the percussion. Unobtrusively directed by Coleman, the evening moves with supple ease between scripted performance (including puppetry, song and dance) and general conversation, infused with a feeling of infectious goodwill. Story telling and eating are traditional partners, but they seldom come together with such seductive charm.

This show is everything that rot roti's Melbourne Festival show Journeys of Love and More Love promised and was not. Where the roti roti show was sententious or patronising, Neda is warm and witty; where the former was a theatre-restaurant experience, here we are welcomed into a home; where love was banalised, here it is opened up in all its messy contradictions, its comedy and pain, its loss and forgivenness and joy. The experience of emigration is a familiar Australian narrative, but as Cherry Cherry demonstrates, no story is a cliche close up, in all its details and textures.

The contrast extends to the food: Zaida's pretentious restaurant-style tasting plates are here replaced with honest cooking, the delicious tastes of Mauritius and Iran inflected through contemporary Melbourne. Intimate theatre, indeed: this is an experience in which the audience is a delighted and willing participant, not a product to be consumed.

It felt like a privilege to be there. Cherry Cherry's insistence on the human, the generous attention it brings to bear on living, is the antidote to fear and misinformation and hatred. Aside from that, it's a completely enjoyable evening, food for the soul and body. I believe the season has been extended, but you'll have to be fast.

Top: MKA's The Economist. Bottom: deliciousness from Cherry Cherry.

The Economist by Tobias Manderson-Galvin, directed by Van Badham. Design by David Samuel, sound design by Nick McCorriston, lighting design by Julia Knibbs, costumes by Chloe Greaves. With Marcus Mckenzie, Zoey Dawson, James Deeth, Conor Gallacher, Sarah Walker and Peter Paltos. MKA Theatre, MKA Pop-Up Theatre, 73 Nicholson St. Abbotsford, until December 10. Bookings.

Cherry Cherry, by Neda Rahmani and Xan Colman, with the assistance of Marrs Coiro. Design by Neda and Xan, costumes by Melanie Liertz. A is for Atlas, Rear 96 Harold Street, Thornbury. Bookings.


Anonymous said...

"...if you like theatre, Melbourne is the place to be"

Really Alison? Just Melbourne huh? They aren't any other cities in the country that are doing interesting things as well? You've checked everywhere before making that statement have you?

Way to contribute to everything that's wrong with theatre culture in this country.

Alison Croggon said...

SNARK! It's been a while... Yes, I do my best to contribute to everything that's wrong with theatre in this country; and obviously I never travel anywhere else to see it.

Physician, heal thyself. Your contribution here, to a review which talks about the impoverishment of discourse here and elsewhere, is to take umbrage at a perfectly bland throwaway comment. Way to go! (Or are your corsets pinching? If so, commiserations. Mine do all the time, its so hard to find good help these days...) Yes, if you like theatre, Melbourne is an exciting place to be. How it follows that other places are unexciting beats me.

Anonymous said...

You seem to be mistaking me for someone else. Sorry to disappoint and ruin your reductionist response.

"How it follows that other places are unexciting beats me."

Simple. Your use of the word "the" in the original statement. And your use of "an" in the cover up.

Perhaps if you understood the effect of statements like that you might actually think before you wrote them. But no. You clearly don't. It's just a little statement, isn't it? How could it possibly contribute to the ongoing discrepancies in our national theatre culture. How could it possibly have anything to do with programming bias, funding bias, casting bias.

How could the little cities possibly complain? Melbourne is so great. If you like theatre, it's THE place to be.

Alison Croggon said...

I don't know how I can confuse you with someone else, Anon, when you haven't the courage to back up your snark with your identity. And let me get this right - YOU'RE calling ME "reductionist"? On the basis of a "the" and an "an" filleted out of a post that is about something else entirely - fwiw, the strengths of independent theatre in Melbourne, and in particular the strengths of two productions I saw the other week - I am "the problem"? And these two words outweigh all the advocacy I've done on this blog - and elsewhere - for all kinds of theatre, in all kinds of places?

I'm not saying that there are not discrepancies, but I think you very much miss your target here. And I don't see why my enthusiasm for Melbourne theatre is a de facto assault on anything else. It's worth being enthusiastic about.

Anonymous said...

Oh, please. If it was that irrelevant a statement then why bother putting it in there in the first place? Aren't you a wordsmith? Don't you think words have an effect?

You really think the/an doesn't matter but by name somehow does?

And I wasn't blaming you for the whole thing. I never said you were "the problem" as you seem to quote me as saying. I said things like your statement contribute to a national cultural discrepancy. Whether you like it or not.

Alison Croggon said...

It's a fact that the concentration of companies in one of Australia's biggest cities means there's more on offer. That fact doesn't amount to a dismissal of other cities. FFS.

You might stop wasting your and my time if, instead of having an opportunistic potshot at me, you talked (as I have) about why regional theatre should be supported, why it produces such interesting companies, or why certain kinds of theatre are marginalised. If you feel that theatre you value is under-reported and under-represented in the discourse, start your own blog. I did, and for precisely those reasons. It costs nothing but your whole life.

Anonymous said...

No one denies wrong-doing quite like a campaigner, hey Alison?

Who was your original comment even for? Melbourne people? To pat yourselves on the back? Or everyone else? Just in case they needed to know.

Concentration is one thing. Quality is something else.

You want to improve theatre in this country? Easy. Stop the government pouring all of its funding into companies and artists from Melbourne and Sydney and spread the wealth to those in other cities and areas. Pouring it into only two urban centres does nothing but shrink the cultural voice of the nation and give authority to those who are somehow at an advantage by their choice of geography, creating a gatekeeper effect to anyone who would like to live elsewhere.

This rant was going to continue until it links back to you and your inane little statement but you're right. It's a waste of time.

Geoffrey said...

I must confess, and am prepared to try and duck the machine-gun fire by way of your response Ms TN, but I did think that the " ... Melbourne ... " comment did read like something out of a Tourism Victoria brochure.

The "Concentration is one thing. Quality is something else" comment is the critical point here though – and the possibilities afforded to artists working in a metropolis are, indeed, enviable.

I am curious, Anon. I would very much like to know why your defence of 'elsewhere' is so important to you.

I have my reasons.

Alison Croggon said...

As people who actually read this blog know, I'm quite happy to acknowledge fault. It's not a big deal to be wrong. But you are clearly not interested in what I do write about. Yes, Melbourne is great, and the general quality of theatre here is high. It's not a crime to say so, frankly. And guess what, from London or New York, it's the boondocks.

Two thirds of Australians live in cities. Seems fair enough that funding should follow the people. I am, however, absolutely alive to the need for more funding in the regions. Resentment against the (perceived) privilege of one won't solve the problems of the other.

It's probably worth nothing, what with your aggressive inattention to what was actually discussed, that neither of the companies I write about in this review are in fact funded by government arts bodies.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Geoffrey - we crossed messages. Like I said, it was a throwaway comment, although I feel no shame about feeling a parochial fondness for Melbourne. Given that I talked about some quite interesting things in the review, and that isn't interesting, it got up my nose.

Geoffrey said...

I think this is about projection, not fault. As someone who reads, and has read, your blog religiously, it is obvious to me that Anon is actually wanting to make a point. And it's an incredibly valid one.

I could argue the "general quality" statement all night. It's prolific, yes. "High"? Nope. But it does exist, which is a relief.

The issue of how our theatre culture traverses our geographic challenges is fascinating ... and like I said in my previous comment, I am curious to know more about the origins of what can easily be described as hostility. But I honestly don't believe that Anon is blaming you Ms TN.

It's a fascinating debate ... and one that deserves to be happening, especially here on the only blog of merit, record and authority.

Alison Croggon said...

If only it were a debate, with particulars, rather than ungenerous anonymous sniping. Perhaps Anon could look at some of the more interesting National Cultural Policy responses submitted by the theatre community, and get some idea of what people are actually thinking and doing and suggesting.

Geoffrey said...

And this is the conundrum. It's a given you write about interesting things. Sorry, but there's no surprises there. Brilliantly ... and always.

But this conversation about Australian Theatre Culture never happens in the same way as it does in the film culture. For quite obvious reasons.

Snowtown could no sooner have been made in Melbourne than Gone With The Wind.

And the water-tight – dare I call it a monopoly (?) – on touring imperatives – both of the quality kind and the funded variety – are critical discussions to have as a much-needed next step.

Geoffrey said...

National Cultural Policy? Bah humbug. Let's not handball this over to the pollies. It's too important. And a pointless, if vainglorious, exercise. Just a short-cut to stifling the debate. Like the Summit we all disagreed and argued about all those years and years ago.

This is a discussion about cultural isolation ... and it's one that no well-worded submission can even begin to address.

It's great that it's beginning to happen – differently – here.

Alison Croggon said...

The discussion DOES happen, even if it's not considered important enough for opinion columns in the national newspapers. It happened at the National Theatre Forum in September, which occurred in Brisbane and had attendees from all over Australia, large cities and tiny hamlets, representing every part of theatre. And I mentioned the more interesting responses from the theatre community to the National Cultural Policy discussion paper, especially the interest in the NBN, which is a critical questions for regional Australia. (The Country Party sold out its constituents by attacking that, in a way I simply do not understand) People are talking, thinking, suggesting and where possible, doing.

Touring is important, absolutely. But the crucial thing is fostering and nurturing the companies that do exist in regional centres. And, as with Back to Back, touring them to us.

Alison Croggon said...

The pollies are the only people who have the means to access funding on a federal level. Who else are we going to hand it to?

Geoffrey said...

The national – as in truly national (ie not just east coast with some west coast curiosities thrown in when the travel budget extends that far) – federation of theatre practitioners that everyone's been talking about for years yet doing nothing about.

An organisation that lobbies (like the film industry does ... in fact, like any industry and sector does) and lifts the entire debate above the tacit politicisation of our Theatre.

It's important to remember that neither political party in this country has run to an election with an Arts Policy.

Too late now.

Geoffrey said...

...since Paul Keating, I should have written. Sorry, my fingers got the better of me.

Daniel Borbely said...

Just as a side-note ... loved 'The Economist'. Great to see gutsy new writing. Thanks for the review Alison (and the reminder--I almost missed it!)

I loved the clever use of minimalism and alienation, as well as the almost schizophrenic shifts between pathos and comedy.

On the other hand, I would liked to have seen a deeper exploration of the wider issues of culture and the re-emergence of violent nationalism--particularly in Europe, but also with regard to Oz. The tantalising 'Bolt' reference, the sensational Howard/Costello remark, the MKA website asserting: 'Far from being one in a million The Economist argues that Anders Breiviks are everywhere'. I felt these had real dramatic potential, but were sadly insufficiently explored.

Alison Croggon said...

It's a shame The Economist became a side note. Thanks Daniel, and I'm glad to enjoyed it. I wonder if it might have become proselytising if it had made those parallels too obvious? To me they were quite clear, but without hitting me over the head with them.

Daniel Borbely said...

Oh no, I didn't mean for it to be more didactic or blunt. I meant that Brevik's character is so peculiar--a steroid taking, body-building, ultra-nationalist, geo-farming, Warcraft playing, neo-fascist serial murderer with an imaginary friend (the Norse god Odin) that seeing the wider implications of the very real spread of right-wing politics in our general culture (and the social and cultural influences that have given it oxygen) are obscured by the esoteric details ... I'm surprised that you thought this was quite clear; to me 'The Economist' stuck to established facts with minor imaginative flourishes (mostly for comedic or dramatic effect). Did I miss something? I would have been content with a Brechtian exploration of the events, but the promo material seemed to have promised a little more.

Cameron Woodhead said...


I wholeheartedly concur with both of these reviews. (Wasn't Neda a revelation?) And there's nothing wrong with a bit of home-team enthusiasm, although you made them during a stellar stage week in Sydney (including Kevin Spacey's turn as Richard III, which I saw, and Cate Blanchett in Gross und Klein, which I didn't).

Also have to agree with this little gem:

"If you feel that theatre you value is under-reported and under-represented in the discourse, start your own blog. I did, and for precisely those reasons. It costs nothing but your whole life."

Worth bearing in mind anon. Certainly, for theatre critcism, Melbourne is the place to be. The fact that Melbourne has people like Alison willing to write and argue about theatre for little or no money is one of our city's strengths. In its own small way, it improves the general theatre culture here. Artists benefit from their work being taken seriously. They want to feel that what they do matters, is something central to public life and not just some eccentric enterprise of marginal interest.

Daniele Zinni said...

I came back home from The Economist worried about what I might do or cause others to do. I wish art complicated my life more often.

What I didn't like about the writing was the frequent use of commonplace to create irony (e.g. in the rifle range) - I think it's an overused device - but found the play well balanced overall.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Cameron. Not seeing Gross und Klein is at present my major theatrical regret. I hear nothing but raves.

I'm not sure what you mean by "the commonplace", Daniele - should it not have had the commonplace in it?

Paul said...

All of this could have been avoided with a safetywink ( ;) ) at the end of your throw away line.

Ah emoticons, is there anything they can't do?

Alison Croggon said...

Damn it. Why didn't I think of that? It was really the phrased equivalent of an emoticon. (One of those yellow ones that jump up and down). What the hell, I was tired. I've written way too many words this year, I just thought it a little unfair to jump on that line when there were so many others in the review that were, well, actually about something. But such is life on teh internets.