How do you turn theory into theatre? Dumbshow’s latest piece, based on the wide-ranging ideas of Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, is an ambitious attempt to answer that question. Lashing narrative to ideas, Electric Dreams is heavily invested in one of its central beliefs: in order to resist, first of all you need a story.
“We’re not terrorists,” Dumbshow’s four performers reassure us as they walk onstage in a motley array of masks and balaclavas, “we’re librarians”. It’s one of the best opening lines on the Fringe, and a smart framing device to boot. With this opening, the company locate Klein’s economic theories in the midst of British austerity politics, taking as their setting a library that is about to close as a result of Tory cuts. Here, the librarians in question start telling a story about their most dedicated visitor, an old woman whose research might offer the answer to their own current predicament.
Their story begins when Rose, said old woman, meets Sebastian, a Chilean who has escaped the Pinochet regime. Rose can’t remember her past; Sebastian wishes he could forget his. As they (inevitably) fall in love, Sebastian helps Rose to track down her disappeared memories and discover what could have happened to wipe her mind so drastically. The search takes them to the 1950s CIA-funded research of Dr Ewen Cameron, a psychiatrist at Montreal’s McGill University whose experiments in brainwashing patients – including Rose – went on to influence the torture techniques used on Sebastian in Chile. The dots start to join up.
If a bit over-reliant on convoluted contrivance, it’s a clever way of threading together Klein’s huge web of ideas, while at the same time pushing them forwards into the present day. Rose, who becomes something of a conduit for Klein’s arguments, begins to see the shock therapy she was subjected to as a young woman happening again and again in the world around her. Nations suffer shocks – natural or manmade – followed by the stealth introduction of capitalism. It’s economic revolution via the back door, while people are still reeling and vulnerable.
Dumbshow even suggest that it’s happening here, now. Our shock was the financial crisis; still dazed and confused, we allowed ourselves to sleepwalk into austerity politics and the myth that there is no alternative. It’s a persuasive argument, bringing Klein’s theories that extra step closer to the show’s audience and beginning to galvanise us into becoming “shock resistant”.
With greater theatrical scope, Electric Dreams could be a dazzling political thriller. In its current state, it’s hampered by some occasionally shaky performances and the limits of its modest design. Impressively, though, it rarely feels like a staging of research, administering a huge shock of information with only the lightest of jolts.
Read director Michael Bryher on the challenge of making theatre about economics.