By Cameron Magusic | Joint RMIT Catalyst music, film + culture editor | @Cameron_Magusic (Twitter) | cameron.magusic (Facebook)
Photo Credit: Aleks Corke | Pictured (L-R): James Jackson, James Malcher, Olivia Bishop and Elizabeth Brennan
Chances are, you’ve been there.
If you haven’t been to Ikea, you’re missing out on the flatpack furniture and the conveyor-belt customer journey are not to be missed. And you can’t possibly leave without trying on the Swedish meatballs for size at the café.
It was at the Ikea café at Victoria Gardens in 2017 that I “celebrated” a quasi-birthday dinner with my ex after shopping for various knick-knacks to furnish her new place.
So it was with extreme interest that I ventured to Theatre Works in St Kilda to witness The Bloomshed’s highly original and highly entertaining production of “The Market is a Wind-Up Toy” (hereafter “The Market …”) as part of Melbourne Fringe Festival.
A contribution to the genres of political and protest theatre and premised as a satirical take on the excesses and inequities of neoliberalism and “late” capitalism, the audience follows the protagonist, Ikea customer service representative Arvid Flatpack (played by multiple actors – more on that below) as they survive the apocalypse and journey to retrieve an idol that supposedly keeps the balance sheets of global finance balanced.
The machinations that have conspired to build Ikea to what it is today provides a worthy field of inquiry, as show director James Jackson tells Catalyst.
Jackson refers to Testament of a Small Furniture Dealer, the utilitarian manifesto written by Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad, in which Kamprad writes about Ikea’s supposed contribution to democracy and freedom, which Jackson calls “as dangerous as it is absurd”.
Things fall apart
By sheer co-incidence on the night I attended, problems with the sound desk caused a delay to the start of the show.
“This is the nature of live theatre,” the front desk announced. “Things go wrong sometimes.”
Indeed, things do go wrong, with Jackson providing Catalyst with an insight into the show’s origin:
We’re disgusted by neoliberal policies that see privatisation, deregulation (or re-regulation depending on who you’re talking to) and the Commodification of Everything as some means to utopia. We wanted to examine how this system that doesn’t work manages to stay on top despite the suffering it causes.
Part of Jackson’s “Commodification of Everything” is the commodification of personality, indicated by the fact Flatpack is played by multiple actors throughout the course of the show – “We’re all unique”, as the saying goes.
The production is a litany of high and pop cultural allusions mashed together, which Fred Pryce (2019) for Theatre Travel s writes “result[s] in a sugar rush of satirical comedy, in which its extreme energy is only matched by its commitment to the bizarre.”
Pryce goes on:
A lot of the sketches dotted throughout feel half-formed, tossing ideas into a blender and spitting them out just as quickly, and when a joke doesn’t land, the over-the-top vigour of it can become grating … Though it never slows down, such a constant high starts to feel numbing, and the collage of current events feels strangely lacking of a central thesis.
The story – in its current iteration, at least – is more coherent than Pryce makes out to be. Jackson tells Catalyst that in playing four seasons in 12 months, the show has been “completely re-written”:
It’s not only because politics changes and references to contemporary events quickly grow old. It’s because we’re always trying to improve the argument and hone the investigation.
As one of the characters in “The Market …” says, “The past masticates the future”.
Nonetheless, the level of coherence or otherwise is not for me to judge. “The Market is a Wind-Up Toy” might not be an exemplar of millennial humour, but as The Washington Post’s Elizabeth Bruenig wrote in an article on the topic, “Absurdity is the compulsion to go looking for meaning that simply isn’t there”. And so it is with “The Market is a Wind-Up Toy”.
But, that’s not quite doing the show justice.
Become a banker
You’d be well placed to compare “The Market is a Wind-Up Toy” with another example of political theatre, Spain’s “Hazte Banquero” (Become a Banker).
That show, based on a published trove of emails proving corrupt and criminal conduct among Spain’s political and financial elite that centred on the Caja Madrid Savings Bank (later Bankia) and resulted in several imprisonments, has the same kind of political energy in patches that “The Market …” evokes throughout.
Hazte Banquero’s answer to the Wolf of Wall Street, Matias Amat Roca, who sold shonky “Preferred Shares” on behalf of the Spanish bank, litters his now-public emails with exclamation marks, and the actor who depicts him exudes so much verve you just want to slap him.
All of the actors in “The Market …” bring the same kind of verve, and the intention is similar, as Jackson points out:
Our aim is to bring people to the theatre who don’t normally go, by making theatre that doesn’t look like theatre. At least not traditional theatre. It’s more of a dance-party, a rave, a manifesto with dramatic elements.
Time to drain the … Canberra bubble?
The real-life story behind “Hazte Banquero”, set in Madrid, Spain, rings true in Melbourne, Australia when Jackson tells Catalyst of “a tiny ruling elite who have become entrenched through extremely effective manipulation”.
The way forward, from Jackson’s perspective, is not necessarily the production of shows like “Hazte Banquero” or “The Market …” – but instead to create dialogue around and after these shows, either “to march through the streets and dismantle the institutions by smashing their electronic networks and burning down their offices” or “create effective change through the democratic institutions we have in place, even if they are emaciated”.
Jackson isn’t suggesting “The Market …” provides an answer to this fork in the road. He says it’s up to attendees to “leave thinking about the systems that perpetuate suffering, rather than the particular instances of it.”
This is reflective of a cybernetic view of political communication, similar to the Spanish activist group that produced “Hazte Banquero”.
All in all, “The Market is a Wind-Up Toy” is hugely enjoyable as long as you dispel any preconceived notions around narrative order and structure – this show sees this as less of a priority, much like “millennial” cultural depictions of global society today.
The Margaret Thatcher rave scene is as enticing as it sounds, and one of my favourite parts.
The last word, then, goes to the director of the show, James Jackson:
The great irony of our times is this: if we don’t create change through the institutions we have in place – and soon – then we will probably find that revolution is inevitable. It might not look like revolution; we might not even use that word. But I suspect that the latter will be far more painful than the former. The question then becomes, how much suffering are we willing to undergo?
Director | James Jackson
Producer | Sophie Ashkanasy
Lighting Designer | John Collopy
Sound Designer | Justin Gardam
Stage Manager | Jacinta Anderson
Performers | Edan Goodall, James Malcher, Olivia Bishop, Emily O’Connor, James Jackson and Elizabeth Brennan
11 – 21 September 2019
Tue – Sat 9pm; Sun 8:30
Theatre Works | 14 Acland Street, St Kilda East, VictoriaFor bookings and info visit melbournefringe.com.au or call 03 9660 9666