My husband returned from his daily dog walk, drenched from a sudden downpour of rain. He had been stopped in the park by a man who wanted to know the time and who then proceeded to deliver a half hour diatribe about how messed up the world is and it’s all because of technology. Eventually he shook my husband’s hand, thanked him for the chat and left. The delay meant my husband was caught in the rain and when he arrived home he noticed that the reasonably new guttering was overflowing. Once inside he banged his shin on the coffee table that had been moved for vacuuming. He wasn’t happy.
The familiar routine, order and placement of our time and space become second nature and we travel through our days without questioning or thinking, until something disrupts us. We only really notice when things are not working or in their usual spot or people randomly attack or interrupt us. We believe that we can control our time, homes, interactions and things. They are part of the way we establish our identity and attempt to organize our time and our lives.
Sydney Theatre Company’s production of PERPLEX at the Wharf opens with Glenn and Andrea returning to their apartment after a holiday and they are perplexed by subtle changes. There is a letter announcing that the electricity has been disconnected, a strange pot plant in the kitchen, the coffee table is different and Glenn keeps banging into it and the place smells bad. Confusion continues as their friends Rebecca and Tim, who have been minding the apartment in their absence, indicate that they are the inhabitants of the apartment and Glenn and Andrea are merely visiting and have been rather late arriving. Tim comfortably wanders about naked with no more than a towel thrown over his shoulder, engaging Rebecca in philosophical discussion about Darwin, evolution and the meaninglessness of language. Rebecca breaks things in the kitchen and throws the rubbish under the couch.
Remarkably, Glenn and Andrea accept the shift in ownership with little more than puzzlement and the play then embarks on a roller coaster of shifting, sliding and swapping of identities and relationships and acceptance of all moments and situations as truth at the time. Glenn becomes a child, Andrea the au pair. Later Glenn is an SS man and Andrea dresses up as a volcano in the most wonderfully creative volcano costume. Tim becomes a sexy elk, complete with handy antlers, while Rebecca becomes Glenn’s mother and a Viking maid.
PERPLEX breaks down and through the conventions of theatre and the audience suspension of disbelief in terms of the characters that we play on stage and in real life. This is extended to the point that the characters have the actors’ names; Glenn Hazeldine, Andrea Demetriades, Rebecca Massey and Tim Walter, further blurring the distinction between reality and play. This is also physically represented as the set of the production, designed by Renee Mulder, becomes a deconstructed mess, exposing the mechanics of the theatre as the actors multi role play into their various identities.
Written by prolific, contemporary German playwright, Marius Von Mayenburg, Sydney Theatre Company’s production of PERPLEX is an Australian premiere. Mayenburg wrote the play as a gift to himself, first producing it in 2012 in Berlin. It has its roots firmly embedded in the Absurdism genre with strong references to the themes and techniques of Absurdist playwrights Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Luigi Pirandello and Tom Stoppard.
The movement known as Absurdism emerged in Paris, France after the horrors of WWII, although there was no conscious school or movement as each of the writers saw themselves as outsiders, cut off and isolated in their own private worlds. The assumptions that human beings are rational creatures who live in an ordered universe was replaced by a view that the human being is an isolated existent who is cast into an alien universe with no inherent truth, value or meaning. Time is fluid, language becomes meaningless and identity is malleable and interchangeable. The only truth is that we do exist and this is affirmed by relationships with others and belief in the moment.
The assumption of the “well-made play” is that the world makes sense and everything has a rational ending. Absurdist plays express the opposite – experience is cyclical and the universe is illogical.
Word play, physical humour and slapstick are used to highlight the despair of the human condition as we laugh at and sympathize with characters who are trying to maintain a dignity in a world that has gone mad. There is a lack of any clear division between fact and fantasy. The main belief is in being and action, engagement and acceptance of the moment, the part you are playing at that time and the wonderful co-dependence of our relationships. We are precious to each other.
The quartet of actors skillfully accept all moments with absolute belief and conviction, constantly switching from private moments to direct address past the “4th wall”. They play for one another as characters and for us as actors. Thinking about it too much can mess with your head! The best thing to do is follow their example, accept the offer and have fun. There is definitely plenty of laughter and appreciation of the energy and commitment. A beautifully executed flip of Rebecca onto the couch by Glenn brings a round of applause.
Director Sarah Giles has presented a fast paced, energetic and engaging production, supported by a subtly effective sound design by Max Lyandvert. The 105 minutes passed remarkably quickly as the characters/actors prowled and commanded the stage, flounced in and out of the doors, transforming into other identities and roles in a whirl of costume, action and witty dialogue. The moments of pause are nicely spaced and when they all sit to enjoy an Elephant Nose Blow cocktail, we take a well-earned rest as well, albeit briefly before they move onto the next round of role playing and philosophical discussions about Plato, caves and the world simply being information about an object.
Life is undeniably messy; we have little control over anything really and there is rarely a neat and tidy denouement. Our roles, relationships and identity shift and slide according to the parts we play on a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly basis as we wander through the repetitive cycle of our days.
There is only one thing to do. Put on your favourite costume, embrace the moment and give yourself to the elk.
A Sydney Theatre Company production directed by Sarah Giles, Marius von Mayenburg’s PERPLEX, translated by Maja Zade, opened at the Wharf 1 Theatre on Friday 4th April and runs until Saturday 3rd May, 2014.
For more information about this production visit the Sydney Theatre Company’s official website- http://www.sdneytheatre.com.au