Penny Arcade: Longing Lasts Longer
4 stars ****
Underbelly Cowgate (Venue 61)
THERE’S NO DEFINING Penny Arcade. When she climbs on stage to perform her latest one hour show – wearing a dark blue figure-hugging dress, high heels, and a huge slash of red lipstick – the 65-year-old New York underground diva makes it clear in the first minute or so that this is not theatre, nor stand-up comedy, nor even performance art; it is, she says, something else, a rap or maybe a rant, about a few things that have happened to the human mind during her lifetime.
Penny Arcade’s thesis – presented at high speed, and accompanied by a thundering mix-tape of musical cues from Arcade’s underground past – is that everyone under about 40 today is a victim of a huge psychological and marketing experiment, in which everyone is permanently wired to the internet, and constantly targeted by various subtle and not-so-subtle forms of advertising and data-mining. Her own age-group, by contrast, she sees as a control group, who grew up and experienced their rebellious youth before these ever-more-complex technologies for invading the mind were in place.
Like any exasperated old hippy, she roars out her scorn for a younger generation who no longer rebel, who seem to want to be like their parents; yet there’s a wildness, a passionate dystopian poetry, in her view of the society in which we now live that is somehow anything but commonplace. It’s not that she is nostalgic for the past, she insists; nostalgia is a cosy and disempowering emotion. It’s that she longs for it – for the freedom that she and her generation enjoyed, in the kind of unwatched urban space that no longer exists. And as she says, longing lasts longer than any puny feelings of nostalgia or love; long enough, maybe, to power the kind of struggle that might begin to bring that freedom back.