International Theatre Journalism Exchange Project: Belgium UPDATE
August 31, 2010
Photo: Nicole Beutler: Anja Beutler
The program notes for 1:Songs say, “Behind a row of microphones…she sings, speaks and screams…as if it were a concert.” Performer Sanja Mitrovic does exactly that. It sure looks like a concert to me, but an uptight one. Mitrovic performs in a tight, thigh-length black skirt, nylons, and high heels; her movements tend to be jerky and constrained, and she quickly disengages from songs that are emotionally over-charged. The electro-pop compositions by Gary Shepherd are also a bit detached. There’s often a dance-beat but, confined as we are to our seats, there’s no opportunity to get up and moving. Creator Nicole Beutler’s deliberately distancing tactics put a cerebral gloss on the sung lyrics, which are based on dialogue from “tragic female characters of theatre history,” including Antigone and Medea.
While Mitrovic sings testimonials of abused, vengeful, and defiant stage heroines, mesmerizing cloud-like blurs appear on a white screen upstage of her. They slowly morph into the image of a woman running towards camera with her arm outstretched, circa WWII, while a line of soldiers herd (or execute) a group of civilians. The woman will repeatedly collapse over the duration of the performance. Themes of murder, betrayal, and loss echo between screen image and live singer. Mitrovic is by turns tormented, angry, and self-parodying. In one number she takes a pop-heartbreak pose, singing, “My pieces all gone/My heart is all sore”; in another she opts for tragic self-annihilation; in yet another she aggressively whisper-sings, “I eject all the sperm I have ever received. I turn all the milk in my breast to poison.”
But these gestures seem superficial, possibly because everything is sung in English, which not the actor’s native tongue. It’s not the use of English per se that’s the problem, it’s that it’s used here for its “cool” factor, a fairly common habit in continental European theatre. English, particularly American pop-jargon, is good for swearing. It offers the artist street cred. It lowers the European center of gravity, placing it in the nether regions. In 1:Songs it feels very put on. Mitrovic is as constrained by the music-video English she’s using as she is by the tight dress. Does this speak of the dominance of the Anglo-American entertainment industries? As I write this in an Antwerp café the barista plays track after track of American pop music. This is typical.
It could be that using English this way offers the European theatre artist new ways of thinking and feeling about herself. But what if the entertainment industry export of Anglo-American English just exerts pressure to think and feel the way Americans do? A recent study by three researchers at UBC makes a parallel argument. It shows that almost 70% of articles in leading psychology journals come from the USA, and close to 70% of the subjects studied in these articles are American undergraduate psychology students—making these students 4,000 times more likely to be a subject of study than other Westerners and non-Westerners. Based on samples of this atypical group, psychologists attempt to discover universals about the human condition.
In a recent Herald-Tribune article on the study Anand Giridharadas writes, “Those outside the West continue to feel a certain pressure from beyond to think in ways not their own. The television sitcoms they watch, the books they read, the superheroes they grow up with, the PowerPoint presentations they give—these were often designed with someone else’s psychology foremost in mind, on the hope that they fit universally.” Based on standards of material wellbeing, Europeans probably have more in common with Americans than Africans or Asians, but then again this commonality might be as superficial as the cross-cultural contact made when watching music videos. For me, the tragic defiance of the stage heroine, as embodied in 1:Songs, had about as much depth as a top 40 radio hit written for a 13 year old. Sometimes the screaming hurt my ears, but there was nothing dangerous about it. And the more than occasional touches of irony came across as smug and overly knowing, particularly because the phrasing was awkwardly English, and idiomatically American.
[This article also appears on Plankmagazine.com]