Life is What You Make of It

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Marius von Mayenburg's Perplex

Sydney Theatre Company | Sydney

directed by Sarah Giles

Life is what you make of it – and from Perplex’s point of view it is most certainly a comedy. Marius von Mayenburg's script is a mischievous existentialist meditation on middle class life that uses the stage as a laboratory to examine wide-ranging beliefs about the nature of humanity and our various theological conceptions of what occurs beyond.

Mayenburg's writing is also interested in narrative construction, and how stories are told in ultimately predictable and typified successions. We are meaning-making machines, and Perplex exposes our ravenous need for logic, both in life and narrative, to the point of farce. There are no real characters in the play, only actors who use their own names, playing out different scenarios that are only momentarily coherent before subtle shifts in time and space bring everything into disorientation and a new scenario emerges. It is a crucial point that despite these shifts of context the actors portray, more or less, the same selves. This elasticity of being brings into question the constitution of personal identity and the congruity of fate and destiny.

This is a very funny show. Its absurdity allows for performances to stretch as far as the company dares, which fortunately in this case is far – this is a cast of great talent and gumption. Andrea Demetriades brings with her a sense of the everyday, possessing the look and feel of the person next door, unhindered by overbearing star quality or flamboyant theatricality. Her presence is strong, but she sets herself apart with this ability to portray ordinariness, perfectly echoing the show's dissection of our daily realities. Demetriades' sense of humour is understated but effective as she counterbalances her flashier cast members, ensuring the jokes translate well.

Perplex's surrealness is not outlandish but thorough and insistent. Rebecca Massey embodies this quality strongest. Her creation is consistently bizarre, yet always hidden just beneath the skin. She juxtaposes normalcy with its opposite, and in this simultaneous duality she produces an enigmatic allure. Her characterisations are also the most fluid and unfettered, making her the most unpredictable of the cast. A crucial feature of the play is its dramatically shifting plot trajectories, and Massey manages them with great flair.

Tim Walter provides the cerebral element of the quartet. In the production's more obvious moments of intellectualism he becomes the mouthpiece for Darwin, Nietzsche and Plato. The decision for Walter to appear completely naked for two lengthy sections discussing Evolution and the Allegory of the Cave is an interesting one – the play is determined to restrict the impulse to give excessive gravity to any of its big ideas. Nothing escapes the revelation of its shortfalls and temporalness. Walter's commitment and focus is commendable, his economy of movement reaping maximum rewards with minimal effort.

On hand to provide the show's fortissimo quality of madness is Glenn Hazeldine. His penchant for physical comedy and instinctual connection with the audience makes him an irresistibly funny actor. Slapstick is not to everyone's taste, but when as deftly executed as this it becomes disconcertingly amusing. Hazeldine knows how to create laughter, but more to the point he understands emotion. A highlight of his performance comes after an exceptionally unorthodox sex scene which lifts the entire theatre into dizzying heights of fitful hilarity. Before we can catch our breath Hazeldine dissolves from mania to depression – his tears flowing even before our laughter has subsided.

This is an ensemble of impressive unity. The balance they achieve in supporting each other's strengths, and the incredible comfort at which they encompass their individual approaches to humour, are the reasons for the production's success. They enthrall, not even in spite of but thanks to their unique ‘non-sense’ brand of narrative.

It might not be clear whether director Sarah Giles could have achieved as funny a show with a lesser cast, but there is no doubt that the clarity at which Perplex's big existentialist questions are communicated affirms the strength of her faculty and vision. It is tempting to lose oneself in an absurd, surreal and illogical wilderness that delivers only entertainment and jubilance, but Giles' work here fastidiously unearths the central essence of the script.

The show ends with a song sung in the style of Kurt Weill. This is of course a tribute and acknowledgement to the work of both Weill and Bertolt Brecht. Indeed, the Verfremdungseffekt features heavily. We laugh because we are made to see the normal and the familiar in different lights. It is how we live that is here on show, and it is the subversive way we are made to look at ourselves that tickles. Perplex might not inspire much talk about politics and government, but it is nonetheless entirely about our social selves. Sydney Theatre Company's take on the Epic Theatre might just have Brecht applauding in heaven – even if God is dead.

photo | ©Lisa Tomasetti

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