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Nov 14, 2010

REVIEW: Electronic City | Hoy Polloy, Melbourne

But, here, I say, here something interesting has happened. I think Annie Lennox has saved the day, like she has so many days before.

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HoyPolloy_ElectronicCity_Pic1©FredKroh

I don’t think that it is possible—for me—to talk about Hoy Polloy’s production of Electronic City, written by German playwright Falk Richter, directed by Wayne Pearn, on now at the Mechanic’s Institute in Brunswick, without first talking, at some length, about UK new-wave duo, the Eurythmics, specifically, the breakout early-to-middle years, before they turned to r’n’b-influenced arena rock, the years 1981 to 1983, when they defined their sound through the trilogy of cold-feeling synth classics “Never Gonna Cry Again”, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and “Here Comes the Rain Again”, from the albums In the Garden (1981), Sweet Dreams (1983) and Touch (1983) respectively.

“Here Comes the Rain Again”

The Eurythmics, Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, emerged from Aberdeen-based post-punk group The Tourists, whose jangly guitar-pop influence can still be heard on early Eurythmics singles like the P.I.L.-ish “Belinda”. Their name comes from Eurythmy, the spiritualistic art-and-movement philosophy of German pedagogue Rudolf Steiner. Growing up, Lennox had “studied” at a Steiner School and claims to have been attracted to the mystical dimension of the philosophy; moreover, both Stewart and Lennox liked way the name implied, first, rhythm, and second, Europe, as it was the experimental electronica out of countries like Germany which was at that time the primary creative inspiration for the duo.

“Never Gonna Cry Again”

Originally, “eurythmy” was a neoclassical term of approbation describing well-arranged, well-proportioned architecture. Despite its roots in anthroposophical mysticism, Steiner’s Eurythmy carries over this sense of neoclassical regularity; Steiner’s protégé, Lory Smits, derived the basic movement repertoire from her contemplation of Ancient Greek statuary and dance. The original meaning persists, too, in the early music of the new-wave Eurythmics, expressed in their careful attention to the craft of composition, their strong regular bass lines and sequenced beats and in their cool, lyrical detachment.

What is missing, what distinguishes their “eurythmy” from Steiner’s, is the spiritual euphoria and enthusiastic engagement with the universal rhythm of life. Instead, Lennox and Stewart, in the early years, describe through their music, in Lennox’s words, a world that has an “awful sort of angst and greyness” about it. A cold world, characterised by the recurring ocean motif, which figures prominently in both the lyrics and video clips for “Never Gonna Cry Again”, “Sweet Dreams” and “Here Comes the Rain Again” (although in the clip for “Sweet Dreams” the featured body of water is more of an estuary than the “seven seas” implied by the lyrics). There is a sense of looking down on the world, or of looking out from the shore at the seething body of the ocean, of humanity, looking without sentiment or despair, but with a kind of steely resolve to bare it and not to succumb to that angst and that greyness, establishing through the regularity and impersonality of the sequenced rhythm and synthesised samples a kind of distance from the turbid oceanic human system.

eurythmics Apollonian blindness: Cover art for the single “Never Gonna Cry Again”.

Falk Richter, in Electronic City, and here is where I segue, also distances himself from the human system, establishing a similar detachment and offering the same cold resistance. Here, what is resisted is not to the social mendacity, conformity and hypocrisy despised by the New Romantics, but the “electronic city”, the digital world, the post-industrial, post-capitalist knowledge economy, where the constant technological tug leaves the human organism rootless, washed about the globe on the restless current of an internationalised service industry, on the resistless flow of capital and information, unsure of where they came from, where they are and where they are going, permanently displaced, without integral identity.

Tom, a jet-setting business man, and Joy, a casual for an airport supermarket chain, are sort of in love. Sort of … but it’s hard for them to know because, like the “capricious winds” of Dante’s Inferno, in the second circle of hell, which buffet yearning souls and wrench them from their loves, Tom and Joy are forever parted by the exigencies of capital, by deadlines and schedules, streams of numbers, bad connections and TV phantoms.

HoyPolloy_ElectronicCity_Pic3©FredKroh Dan Walls (Tom) and Sarah Ogden (Joy)

In his essays and interviews, Richter rails passionately against the neo-liberal winds that keep Tom and Joy apart, against globalisation, war, American cultural hegemony, Hollywood, CNN, MTV, etc. But in his plays, his most recent plays, such as Electronic City, 7 Seven Seconds (in God We Trust) and State of Emergency, he is not as antagonistic, not as dialectical, not as explicit in his politics. He describes a world with an “awful sort of horror and panic” about it—

What genre is this? Have we already decided?

Horror. Hectic, big city, banks, stock markets, money flows,
Flow, flowing testosterone flows, the whole building, two thousand-
Room apartments, all belong to the same chain,
Facades everywhere in the world are always the same, I always
Like arriving, never leaving, I travel, but I
Am not moving. My brain tells me again and again: You were here
Already.*

but remains aloof. This play is not passionate; it is defiantly controlled, a very tight, very rhythmical construction. It does not itself dissolve in the digital wash, although it does describe such a process. In the arrangement of its parts, between the protagonist, the deuteragonist and the chorus, the play is highly regular, almost classical, though still effectively conveying the hysteria of the world below. This is something I think that Hoy Polloy and Wayne Pearn have picked up, demonstrating the structural strength of the play with a stark, minimalist presentation, though perhaps the chorus is at times too, er, emphatic—I think the text is clear enough not to be propped by exaggeration.

One thing to note, as to the detachment and the classicism, is that the play is, as Tom says, a horror, in the classical sense that it incites terror without inciting pity. Despite its methodical theatricality, it is, even if self-confessedly, a post-dramatic piece. Drama, especially though not exclusively human drama, is what generates pity. Here the drama has been carefully extracted. Who can say what kind of people Tom and Joy are? Whether they are in fact people, and not mere figments of the artifice? They do not know themselves. They do not fight against the dissolution of their identity. They are too tired. There is no conflict. No drama. No pity. It is not that Richter does not feel pity; it is that the form of the play distances him from everything. What he does instead is to illustrate the viral quality of the “system”, using his terrific grasp of the stage-image to paint the countless connections between human detritus, blown about the globe, and the larger forces that move them.

Richter does actually mention the Eurythmics, nominating “Here Comes the Rain Again” as a sort of theme song for the play. It’s a popular practice in contemporary German theatre, to use kitschy pop music to ironically underline the corroding influence of corporatised and globalised culture on individual authenticity, be it ethical or political or emotional. I pretty much think it’s a reductive, clichéd and generally humourless technique. And I worry about this play, because I think, despite the skilful arrangement of the text, it could easily come off as a reductive, clichéd and generally humourless piece of contemporary German theatre. It’s something to do with the strength of the theatrical form: Richter is untouchable in this play. He is obscured by a galvanised sheath of impenetrable neo-liberal slogans. You can’t argue with him. And where the text overtly suggests humour, I think it comes off as bitter and sarcastic. But, here, I say, here something interesting has happened. I think Annie Lennox has saved the day, like she has so many days before. I think that she has projected through this performance, through this play, a very genuine kind of humour. Lennox and Stewart became international sensations thanks to the gloabalising power of MTV. It was their clip to “Sweet Dreams” that broke them in the US. But they were never corporate shills. Lennox was always looking for a way to be more herself–it caused her much personal and well-documented turmoil. Her detachment in those early singles was never cynical or callous; it had a longing, lonely quality. There’s something genuine about those early Eurythmics tracks. When I see or hear them, it shines through, a beacon, from across the ocean, as it were, her voice, and I smile, still.

Was this same light, or something like it, guiding the Hoy Polloy team? Because, despite the dizzying journey, disorientating imagery, the brevity of the sketch, the verbal athletics of the chorus, the horror that confronts the characters and the audience, the faintness of hope, despite all that, this production comes off as genuinely warm-hearted, quite, in a word, gentle. And it wasn’t only a feeling. At times, I’d swear the chorus were smiling benevolently, as if to say, ‘Here, right here, in this theatre, we are your humans.’

Perhaps it’s the minimalist design, the wise eschewing of technolgoy, which brings out the warmth; or perhaps it’s Hoy Polloy’s confidence in their medium, their faith in theatre; or perhaps it was mere corpsing. But, maybe, just maybe, it was Annie, shining through, like a new emotion. Maybe.

Details: 12 – 27 November 2010, MIPAC, Brunswick (corner Sydney & Glenlyon Roads)
Tickets: $30 Adult / $20 Concession / $18 Tuesday. Bookings etc through Hoy Polloy.

* My sketchy Google-assisted translation, not Daniel Brunet’s, the translator of the Hoy Polloy text.

Photos, Fred Kroh

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