The New Electric Ballroom is a play that relies heavily on rhythm: the rhythm of narrative, the rhythm of the sea, the rhythm of day to day life, the rhythm of the Irish language. It is a piece that has its own internal rhythm, one that I don’t know if I entirely managed to move with. It is a strange piece of theatre – not strange as in bizarre, but strange as in weird or eerie or uncanny. There is a sense that the boundary between times is thin. One night, twenty years ago, is still as close as if it were yesterday - and somehow, despite all the time that has passed, it was just yesterday.
Sisters Clara (Genevieve Mooy), Breda (Odile LeClezio) and Ada (Jane Phegan) live together in a little house. Only Ada, the youngest sister, ever leaves, and the only visitor is local fishmonger Patsy (Justin Smith), bound to them in ways that none of them understand. Twenty years ago, Clara and Breda shared a night at the New Electric Ballroom that traumatised them both so deeply that it rendered them unable to leave the house. Ada has relived that night over and over again through the constantly told and retold story, and in many ways, the scars it has carved upon her are deeper than those of her sisters.
The weakest part of The New Electric Ballroom was the premise. I found it hard to believe that this one night could have so deeply scarred Clara and Breda that it essentially became the moment they stopped living. However, if you can suspend your disbelief, the deeper meanings about what it means to be part of a story and the mythic nature of narrative are very powerful. It took me a while to settle into the play, to relax into the rhythm and let it wash over me. I found myself trying to psychoanalyse it too much, to try and understand more about why Clara and Breda were as agoraphobic and fixated on this one night as they were. I don’t think it’s a particularly flexible text in that sense, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If nothing else, it was interesting, trying to think in a different way synchronise with the piece’s internal rhythms. I do think it made The New Electric Ballroom a bit of a slow starter, but once the patterns became established, it became a lot clearer.
...that is quite a bit of confused highly subjective philosophising right there. (That’s kind of what I do. Sorry.) I certainly think that it’s possible simply to enjoy The New Electric Ballroom simply as beautiful, lyrical language, because hot damn does writer Enda Walsh have a turn of phrase about him. There were some gorgeous performances – I especially enjoyed the work of Justin Smith as Patsy, but all four actors were stellar. I found the soundscape a little intrusive at times, particularly for such a claustrophic, aggressively domestic play. One of the most poignant moments in the play is when Ada stares at a kettle, waiting for it to boil, and I think a little more of this and a little less seascape probably would have been better. Despite this, it was overall a great show from a technical standpoint, and director Kate Gaul deserves high praise.
The idea of the power of narrative to transform and to consume is one that really resonated with me deeply. The New Electric Ballroom has some great funny moments, but its four characters were quietly tragic, doomed by this ravenous, insatiable story, this ouroboros of a tale, unable to escape it even as it eats them alive. It’s a play I liked but I found quite difficult to grasp. I don’t really know how to describe the thinking, the rhythm, innate in it, but suffice it to say it’s not a way of thinking I’m particularly attuned to. What The New Electric Ballroom is is a thought-provoking piece of theatre, and a haunting one. The uncanniness of it is certainly going to stay with me for a while.