On 22 July 2011 Anders Breivik, a right-wing extremist and disturbed fantasist, bombed government buildings in Oslo and carried out a mass shooting in a youth camp on the island of Utøya. The death toll was 77. The world was shocked, hooked on the story, and in a matter of hours Breivik’s face became one of the most instantly recognisable across the globe.
For a young Melbourne playwright, however, the play was the thing. Even as Breivik’s case was unfolding the media, Tobias Manderson-Galvin was drafting what would become The Economist, a theatrical medley spun out of the delirious facist manifesto Breivik had concocted. The initial draft was a behemoth, a confused creation, racking up 200 pages and featuring wacky mime sequences where people laid eggs.
Van Badham, newly appointed Literary Associate at Malthouse Theatre, stepped in to take the reins. “77 children were dead,’” she says pointedly. “This was way too important.” Based in London for 10 years as a playwright, part of the explosive scene that sprung from the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield in 2001 and an old hack at the Fringe, Badham is no stranger to controversial theatre. But the budget-slashing that accompanied Cameron’s new order made a move back to Australia a matter of economic necessity. Freshly arrived back in town, she was looking for something provocative for her first project. She certainly found it with The Economist.
Having workshopped Manderson-Galvin’s nascent script, she discovered that the writer was also intending to direct. The performance date was set for three weeks away. She installed herself as director, and plunged into developing it with the writer and cast. Word of course got out that a play about Breivik was being staged – and at this point the case was still in full swing. The Herald Sun, which Badham likens to our own Daily Mail, coyly asked to attend a rehearsal and run a small piece on it. They were duly invited to the abandoned schoolhouse where it was taking place, took photos, took notes, and were on their way.
But the next day brought an onslaught of attention. The ‘small piece’ transpired as a blistering polemic entitled ‘Sympathy for a Mass Murderer’. The response was instant and vicious. A cast member was spat on by her taxi driver. The writer was besieged in his house and his door was covered with urine. Right-wing radio stations were phoning up Badham demanding a response. This did not deter them, however. Years before, Badham’s first show at the Edinburgh Fringe had catapulted her, almost overnight, from being a practitioner of student theatre into the world of professional theatre-making and a two-year residency at LAMDA. Now her young cast of “little Indie actors” (as she affectionately calls them) were undergoing a similar baptism of fire from innocence to adulthood.
There is a deep irony underscoring this media circus: The Herald Sun was one of the papers that Breivik is known to have read in the run-up to his devastating actions. Its right-leaning principles were clearly something that struck a chord with him, though this bitter irony is unlikely to be appreciated by the paper itself. The self-perpetuating machine of media spin had come full circle in this: denouncing theatre’s response to a mass murderer who, because of actions that were propelled in part by the writings of a rightwing press, was now the star of an international media show.
Badham is a fierce advocate of theatre’s power – and indeed duty – to provide critical commentary on current affairs. “The media were responding to what had happened,” she said, “so why shouldn’t we?” She refers to herself as “Brechty-Brecht” in her dramaturgical vision. Although she has worked in TV and film, she counts theatre as the most important, the hardest to do, and the most crucial to keeping an ongoing discourse. She argues that film and TV are dead upon completion, crystalised in that point in time, out of date from the second they are screened: only theatre retains its active status by laying itself bare to repeat reinterpretation.
The play is not documentary theatre – Badham is dismissive of that mode of performative expression. It does not espouse realism: the actors speak with their own accents and are not looking to evoke a specific sense of Norwegian locality. It uses the writings surrounding the case – not only Breivik’s writings, but also police reports and other public statements – and stages fantasies and songs to explore and expose the narrow world of the European far-right of which Breivik was a product and which, as he saw it, he was defending honourably when he carried out his devastating act of terrorism.
Image credit: MKA Theatre