If you’re anything like me, the moment of cognisance that writer Roslyn Helper and deviser and director Harriet Gillies have put forth for us a show referencing pop punk outfit Good Charlotte quickly leads to a YouTube session that is illuminating, if not purely nostalgic. The plastering of the ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ film clip with anarchy symbols and spiked hair is ironic to say the least, coming from a band making commercial success on an anti-establishment sentiment, yet their ability to sell, and sell their product well, is wholly fitting in the world of Lifestyle of the Richard and Family. However, this show, produced as part of Next Wave and Melbourne Knowledge Week, has left the early 2000s behind, focusing on a time that appears at first look to be the future, but with a little reflection, closely resembles our present.
On a neoclassical stage with period paintings and transparent chairs, we meet the ‘family’, and their ‘lifestyle’, peering through a vast black curtain that frames our view into their world. It is a world, in a sense, of burning desire. Desire for personal progress, commitment to self-improving doctrines, chasing the ever-escaping illusion of satisfaction and success. In these hyper real beginnings we hone in on the barely suppressed challenge of maintaining such intense focus, and the fracturing of facades barely held intact. It appears there is an absolute necessity to submerse oneself in the race to transformation, if one is to maintain their place in society, but this requires a near complete surrendering of autonomy: to monitor biometrics, comply with new media platforms, and never waver from the path to happiness.
All of this amounts to the feeling that the characters on stage are barely people anymore, rather figures expressing the needs of the algorithms that drive their daily lives. The range of human emotions are stretched taught to comply with the needs of social networking and market success. It is a fascinating psychological space, performed with vigour by an energetic cast. Their world is articulated through an impressively detailed lexicon, an augmented consumerist doublespeak of sorts, fittingly written with the assistance of grammar correction program Swift key Note. If you took the framework of a politician’s address, switched the policy buzz words for major brands, the ethos of ‘jobs and growth’ with that of ‘wake up with a smile’, and introduced the logic behind Face book’s algorithms, you would be close to the language used in this show. Incessant, irreverent and out of control, their manner of speaking presents the cracks in this human experience. Interestingly, the apocalypse is present in their world, but largely as a topic that passes by in conversation, and more implicitly as a reality that propels the characters to remain focused on their individual glory.
But this world of success and smiles is, of course, just one of many layers. The surface is thin. Emerging from the wings, clad in balaclavas, the production crew rip away the curtain frame, abduct the performers backstage, and set the wheels of descent in motion. The virtual that was present in the augmented lexicon is now embodied as we are submerged. The video, sound and lighting design come to the fore as the performers transition into movement sequences exploring the question of what goes on behind the facade of technological consumption and social success. The video work, by Solomon Thomas and Carly Young, is reminiscent of phantoms; damaged files on neglected servers, flickering words returning to haunt their authors.
The fragmented words and faces thrown across all walls of the room are coupled by Jai Leeworthy and Marcus Whale’s sound composition. Sometimes throbbing, sometimes delicate, the score provides the map for us to follow this journey through the depths. It is not all doom and horror down here, but everything is tinged with tension – in some moments it is a pulsing sexual fantasy, the desire of electrical transmission surging through power cords and inciting interaction. In others it is a retro futurist seascape, the bottom of an ocean excavated in the name of the economy, lost figures wandering beneath a suffocating and beautiful shimmering visage. In this space without place we rock gently to a humble close. We might be at the bottom of the ocean, but its surface has been transformed by the demands of the elites, and it is no longer alive in a sense that we understand. But something, as of yet undefined, is most certainly pulsing in the deep.