By Jeremy Mahadevan
German playwright Falk Richter’s Electronic City is meant to be chaotic or, as the programme would have it, “a panic-stricken farce from the inner world of contemporary busyness.” Consequently it’s full of people running around, bumping into each other, falling over and booming from the rooftops. And it has the potential to be rather befuddling, as local audiences discovered recently when it was staged at KLPac’s Pentas 2 (27 – 30 Oct 2005).
Thanks to fudgy enunciation, badly-timed chorusing and electronically effected voices, I had a hard time figuring out what the actors were saying half the time. And the faulty audio-visual effects simply added to the addled cacophony. But the thing is, it could be that this confusion is intentional, because Electronic City, directed by Edwin Sumun and Indonesian Wawan Sofwan, tells of a world gone confused.
Richter’s tale is an account of life in the early 21st century, when cities across the world look exactly the same and humans will be nothing more than a faceless global labour force, jetted around from one city to another fulfilling the demands of work until we lose track of time, space and self.
Within this world is Tom (Tony Eusoff), some sort of office worker who may or may not present things at presentations. He’s wandering in a delirious haze through what he thinks are the corridors of his hotel, trying to figure out where he is and, slowly but surely, who he is as well. Joy (Jamie Liew), his spirited lover, is standing in for someone at the till of a sandwich bar, struggling to get the scanning machine to work again so she can attend to 20 hungry businessmen, who appear to have vocabularies made up exclusively of the words ‘fucking’ and ‘shit’, in that order. In fact, those seem to be the only swearwords anybody knows in the future. As far as I can tell, Joy also has some sort of reality TV show made about her life. Or the reality show might, in fact, be her life. I’m not sure, because narrative is heavily interrogated in this play.
As Stephan Wetzel put it in his description, “Electronic City invents many images and makes use of narrative elements, but in the moment of their invention they are rejected as a deception.” So this is a play built upon the idea that certain things are beyond the grasp of human depiction, and its solution is to place them beyond the grasp of the audience.
This is a classic post-modernist trick, of course, and it means that this play exists in a sort of theatrical Bermuda Triangle – here, flaws are not necessarily flaws, because they might just as well be intentional. How convenient. Every card in the ‘Chance’ and ‘Community Chest’ decks is labelled ‘Get Out of Jail Free’, so to a certain extent I have no idea what to make of anything.
Frankly, it’s a bit late in the day for someone to be wholeheartedly flogging a work of fiction rooted in gleeful post-modern hantu stories – most hardcore po-mo skepticism has been heavily diluted in today’s fiction, in favour of more traditional aesthetics and narrative. Perhaps, if this production had gone that way, and approached the text with slightly less enthusiasm, it could have developed more nuances. But as it was, the cast and crew decided to grab the baton of chaos and perplexity and run it right out of town.
A more realistic set might have helped, since it would have lent the frigid world an air of sobering realism. Instead, though, they had a simple set with panels (by the directors and the multimedia designers, Sidney Tan and Crystal Woo) that could combine to form claustrophobic chambers, and screens at either end of the stage to hammer home the, well, electronic-ness of Electronic City. They used a firm dose of deliberately artificial lighting (by Lim Ang Swee, often good) and harsh sound effects (by the directors, often excruciating) to create a big jumble of commotion and disarray.
Stephan Wetzel also says, “Falk Richter’s play doesn’t represent the system either; it has to be said that this play is the system.” So since the system is too obscure and difficult to fathom, so must the play. It’s easy to see why this wouldn’t sit too easily with most of us, due to our reliance on the hegemony of that tyrannical old dialectic, ‘understanding/ignorance’. After all, this play so. obviously can only exist, not within ‘reality’ or outside it, but in metareality that permeates the fabric of plot, purpose and stage, a space that scythes through the implied assumptions of our so-called social ‘reality’. It problematises ‘logic’, and carries the energy to defeat stasis in this ‘created’ or ‘received’ system, defying the phallic tradition of ‘getting it’. This energy resonates, rotates and shatters these dialectical anachronisms as they float rigidly in the vacuum of singularities-events.
Or it could just be that it’s all bollocks.
Back in 1968, scientist Peter Medawar voiced incredulity over what he saw as an attack on the institutions of clarity and reason coming from proponents of structuralism, a forebear of post-modernism.
“A writer on structuralism in the Times Literary Supplement has suggested that thoughts which are confused and tortuous by reason of their profundity are most appropriately expressed in prose that is deliberately unclear,” he said in a lecture, “What a preposterously silly idea! I am reminded of an air-raid warden in wartime Oxford who, when bright moonlight seemed to be defeating the spirit of the blackout, exhorted us to wear dark glasses. He, however, was being funny on purpose.”
That said, despite not trying to be funny on purpose, there were points where this production did manage to grip the audience in something like the right blend between knowing and not knowing. One such moment comes when Joy (ehem) joyfully plonks herself in front of one of the big screens to talk about the docu-drama that’s been made about her life. As she relates events, though, you start to realise that even she’s not sure whether or not the events in the docu-drama match those in her real life, and in fact, she’s not even sure what events were part of the docu-drama and what events were part of her life. We’re not sure whether she’s meant to be real, or part of a play, or part of a docu-drama in a play. From up above, the docu-drama’s directors, played by the play’s directors, interject with observations and corrections, notching higher the intensity of the sudden loss of the sanctity of Joy’s memories and, as a result her very life. It’s platitudinous, of course, but Jamie Liew’s portrayal of Joy, well-judged in its combination of chirp and plaintiveness, helps lead the audience to believe that there’s something in there worth believing; that in fact, as Chris Carter would say, the truth is out there.
Richter has successfully created a giant Mobius strip, so adept at going nowhere, but he must have realised that the prime characteristic of a Mobius strip is that it has only one surface and one edge – such cutting-edge depiction of such bad, bad bedlam ends up dangerously close to being bad, bad bedlam itself. Hence there’s an escape clause, in the apparent victory of love and humanity right at the end of the play. It’s a cheap trick, and one that comes too late. It doesn’t feel like a victory because I, for one, cared little for the characters or the contrived world they inhabit. I mean, what sort of evil globalised economy would so blatantly waste precious kerosene, flying people around from one city to another just because labour is needed here one day, and elsewhere the next? That doesn’t sound cold and systematic to me, it sounds warm and stupid.
This is exactly the sort of laziness that Peter Medawar would have deplored – because we feel the system is too complex to be depicted exactly, why attempt to depict it at all? This play is not a complex exploration of our modern world after all – it is, in fact, a simplistic story that mistakes disorder for depth, using big words and esotericism to lend itself gravitas. It’s got sunglasses on just to spite the moonlight.
Jeremy Mahadevan also contributes to NST.
First Published: 10.11.2005 on Kakiseni