UK theatre company Action Hero’s Wrecking Ball is the final of three works they have presented as part of Arts House’s first 2017 season. They all have simple, punchy conceits and promise to delve beyond the obvious. This one is about a celebrity getting her photo taken, the idea of the image and how it’s used to ‘reinvent’ the self. The celebrity is uncomfortable and awkward, because the photographer is creepy, but weirdly commanding. He speaks lyrically about broad ideas, only to drop them seconds later. He holds the power in the photography studio, even though he promises she (and the audience) are free to do whatever we like.

It’s hard to say exactly what follows, except that ultimately, the photo is taken. It takes the length of the show for the two to hash out every problem in the process, concerns about authenticity chief among them. The world is so real, so tangible, that it took me a while to realise that what I was watching was not quite what I thought it was: not as punchy, not as funny, not as simple as what I might have hoped or imagined. The work instilled a brooding discomfort, first out of empathy with the celebrity who had her photo taken when she wasn’t ready, without being okay with the candidness, and then out of much broader discomfort as the celebrity is inspired to adopt a world-destroyer persona and starts to monologue about dropping nuclear bombs on cities, a metaphor for her power, the power of her image.

Celebrities are a strange phenomenon, embodying some of the bizarre paradoxes of late capitalism. They are sometimes said to represent ideas more than humans, a by-product of the complex and multilayered industry that revolves around marketing their images, making their face recognisable to everyone. Action Hero here try to take us behind the scenes, uncovering the human behind the facade. But of course, this simple premise is shown to be fraught with problems: what is the ‘real’ human, when we constantly perform ourselves and imitate others in order to ingratiate ourselves? We see this when the celebrity copies words directly from the photographer’s mouth, seeming to not even realise she is doing it. The ‘punch line’ of the work is when the published script of Wrecking Ball comes out onstage, and an audience member is asked to read lines from it. It’s more obvious than satisfying.

The work sometimes veers towards surreal abstraction, but doesn’t quite make the leap. There are verbal games at play, where the photographer repeatedly claims that pink mashed potato is ice-cream. The work returns to a ‘tropical island’ idea, even while acknowledging that ‘it’s a bit of a cliché’. The simple, outdated notion of paradise is expanded into a perverse metaphor for supreme colonial power. The celebrity begins to appear like a power-hungry demon, thirsting for profit at all costs. It’s uncomfortable.

The idea of a photography studio being the stage for an imaginary world-takeover seems a bit anachronistic anyway. Is photography really so powerful? Surely the act of photo-taking is not endowed with so much cosmic significance, or at least not in the age of the internet, memes and virality. Fame is more anarchic now, or it almost seems controlled by invisible algorithms more than individual orchestrators of mass awe. This is a bit of an old vision of capitalist power, one in which the villains can be easily defined.

Having seen so many incredible, genre-defying, interdisciplinary works at Arts House recently, the audience interaction ‘lite’ theatre model shown in this show felt like a step backwards. Nonetheless, the work was competently made and left me pondering interesting questions, and seeing international work is always a pleasure and a learning experience. 

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