Theodor Adorno wrote that “the name of disaster can only be spoken silently”, a tender summation of how atrocities can render words both useless and unwanted. And yet, this truth is coupled with the reality that humanity continues to write of terrible things as a coping strategy and as an important means of documentation and remembrance. The ethical debate over the representation of unrepresentable things continues over Australian company MKA’s new work, The Economist, which details significant moments in the life of Anders Breivik, leading up to his murder of 77 people in Norway last July. Some say that his acts of terrorism are too recent to be portrayed theatrically; MKA justify this decision through their attempt to critically trace the causal lines leading to these events, contextualising them, and acknowledging that, sadly, they have the potential to occur virtually anywhere on the globe.
Tobias Manderson-Galvin’s accomplished script draws from Breivik’s diaries, manifesto (published on the day of his attacks), blog posts by himself and others, and journalistic comments to provide specific insights into his motivations and beliefs, whilst maintaining an important distance. This distance is further developed by the production’s highly skilful agitprop style, under the direction of Van Badham and performed by a faultless ensemble of six. All sporting red pullovers (which Breivik has chosen as his costume for all public and court appearances since his arrest), they act as musicians, parts of the set, choruses and individual characters. Zoey Dawson takes on the lead role with great aplomb; the subversion of gender here adds another layer of remove that asks the audience for a clinical analysis.
Breivik’s life is portrayed primarily as a series of failures – from being arrested for graffiti as a teenager whilst his friends evaded capture, to his devastating rejection from being accepted into the Norwegian military service, from his Steroid habit developed as a teenager (sold to him by an amoral misogynist who metes out caustic life advice) to his desperate desire for cosmetic surgery. Particularly impressive is how this production shows all these difficult events that allowed him to get into such a bitterly twisted state of mind, illustrating how Breivik wasn’t born a killer, without encouraging us to sympathise with him. We see that whatever misfortunes befell him, there were also positive people in his life, such as his mother, who would have supported him had he decided to choose a better path. The Economist also ably tackles Breivik’s well-known interest and retreat into videogames such as World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. We are shown why people have reservations about a life increasingly lived online, without any nonsense accusations thrown at the games themselves. In one moving moment near the play’s end, we hear a Norwegian folk singer’s distressed, public response to learning that Breivik enjoyed and felt inspired by her music; this information, alongside his interest in politics, fitness training and videogames that we have already seen, serves to remind us how every individual is made up of a thousand influences and that the blaming of any action on a work of art is pointless and misguided.
There are also some beautiful moments of satire and comedy in the play, but these are sensitively done, and the fragmented dramatisation of Breivik’s massacre on Utoya island left me without words. The decision to have the performers speak in their native Australian accents is more than just pragmatic – it constantly reminds us that creatures like Breivik can be produced anywhere, particularly now in our globalised, mediatised society. Plays like this can perhaps provide an antidote – as a dissemination of ideas and values opposed to those of Breivik and as some small sign of empathy for the families of the victims, and all those affected by his actions.
***** – 5 Stars
The Economist is playing at C nova as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 27th August. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.