SIREN THEATRE’S THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM

Ah…Irish drama. Such beautiful verse and dialogue, such darkly comic writing with a hint of mysticism, such a propensity to take human hopes and shatter the feck out of them.
Segue way into ‘The New Electric Ballroom’.
Enda Walsh’s play explores the lives of three Irish women in a remote fishing village and their fishmonger visitor, Patsy, and the perilous enterprise of giving into the first stages of love and the consequences of dashed hopes and dreams, where shame and disappointment define your destiny.
Many countries have a distinctive style of writing, whether thematically or stylistically. Irish drama, from my own ignorant viewpoint, seems to give its characters a glimpse into the light, a glimmer of happiness before the clouds roll in and piss all over it and in the process, allows its audience to laugh at the absurd, heighten the mundane and create a sense of the supernatural. I love it and here I claim my own dark sense of humour and Irish heritage and, like most Australians, there is an appreciation of the comic and poetic expression of these themes.
It is because of the richness of language and cadence of delivery that it takes a very skilled and experienced director and cast to be able to communicate the complexities of the drama. Director Kate Gaul didn’t completely master the play as evidenced in the first 30 minutes but it did get there in the end.
The rapid fire dialogue of Breda (Odile Le Clezio) and Ada (Jane Phegan) as they hug the door with their backs to the audience in the opening scene means the dialogue all rolls into one blur and you spend some time playing catch up. In fact the first half hour lacks clarity- either in the rhythm of the play or in the direction of the narrative such as when Ada tells us about the events that transpired when she was riding back from work and starts on the initial patterns of storytelling, we as an audience are expecting to head in one direction but the writer cleverly manipulates and diverts our focus as he sees fit. None of these stories are random and in fact they become beautiful metaphors for what is to come and I feel like Gaul didn’t quite connect all the dots in planting these ideas so we don’t lose the coherency of the threads.
But once you understand the pattern of the play- that ‘light bulb’ moment, you can then sit back and enjoy what is to come. And for that I think you can thank Justin Smith as Patsy. Smith brings this play thoroughly to life- his energy, skill, focus and hypnotic vocals meant that for a brief pocket in time, we all fell in love with him, just as writer and director would hope. By setting him up like this, when they pull out the rug we really feel the loss.
The revelations of the second half redeem any confusion from the first half and for this reason I didn’t mind having to work as an audience member in figuring out what was going on, although I will add a little more control in the choices of the first 30 minutes would have made this play a must see. Tom Bannerman’s design enhances this dark insular world and I do love the old school or retro choices that suggest these are characters trapped in their past.
I do hope ‘The New Electric Ballroom’ pulls a profit for Siren Theatre Company under the patronage of the Griffin Independent season. It is a good play directed and performed by a generally good cast.
And as I mentioned in my review of ‘Terminus’, when is Australian writing going to get the funding and development it needs so we can consistently shape and refine our own poetic and theatrical national, social and cultural agenda?

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4 comments

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Laurence Coy March 25, 2012 at 8:29 am

Right on Jane… again.

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Annonymous March 28, 2012 at 10:55 am

I agree Jane that the audience are not able to “catch up” in the first scene of The New Electric Ballroom. The play begins in a relentless, visceral manner but we were not watching a soap opera and to my mind this was purposeful on the part of both the director and writer. Like Patsy (the local village fishmonger) who pleads, "to be opened up to" and cordially invited into the sister’s home, we as the audience are also not invited in. I think it is a necessary (although alienating) opening to this play in order to set the scene for what could be described as an Irish version of Chekov’s “Three Sisters.”

Unlike Chekov, however, who exposes his “Sister’s” empty lives through ennui and genteel naturalistic prose, Enda Walsh portraits the plight of his three sisters through classic Irish story telling akin to Becket’s tragicomic gaze on human nature. The lost dreams, the mundane everyday grind is heightened by poetic story telling as only the Irish can. And what a rich tapestry of poetic metaphors! The bleak references to the feminine archetypes of Mary and Magdalene throughout the play is in itself fodder for a treatise.

In my mind the actors all mastered the often abrasive and dehumanising language necessary to depict the tragedy of their insular and unfulfilled lives. Justin Smith’s Patsy who transitions from smelly fishmonger to rock star (an actors dream role) was vulnerable and gorgeous and yes we all fall in love with him as we are supposed to.

The New Electric Ballroom is a play for seasoned theatregoers not for an audience who want a feel good chocolate box experience. Had the director, Kate Gaul, made it any less electrifying and alienating in the beginning the audience may have felt more comfortable and less confronted but they would definitely not have been any the wiser as to where they were. This pummelling is in the writing and leaves the audience unsure which in turn ensures that when the softer scenes do eventuate they can never be over sentimentalised.

All in all it’s a terrific work.

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Mycroft Snooks April 8, 2012 at 12:35 pm

A pretty detailed comment by 'Anonymous'. Is this a pen name for the director or one of the actors? Personally, I am always delighted to be treated to a 'feel good chocolate box experience' (whatever that is – it sounds nice) rather than being confronted, alienated and electrified (which all sounds pretty painful). Despite being a Philistine I am a seasoned theatre goer but have not yet found joy in seeing plays in order to become uncomfortable and depressed – I can go to work for that.

Yours in Philistinism,

Mycroft

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Kenney March 12, 2013 at 11:55 pm

I remember seeing this after a very long shift at work.
I was therefore happy to be up the back where no one but my partner saw me fall asleep against the railing.
Also, we didn't know what was behind the door until the show ended. But we had a lovely view of the cracker cabinet.
Also, we both had no clue what was going on.

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