Sydney Theatre Company presents PERPLEX by Marius Von Mayenburg. Translated by Maja Zade in the Wharf 1 Theatre, Hickson Rd. Walsh Bay.
PERPLEX Written by Marius Von Mayenburg, Translated by Maja Zade, Directed by Sarah Giles, is one of the brightest, challenging, intriguing, hilarious contemporary texts that we have had on a Sydney stage for some time. Mr Von Mayenburg is a writer, director and dramaturge. He has been a close collaborator with Thomas Ostermier at the Baracke at Deutsches Theatre in Berlin and, from 1999, at Schaubhne am Lehniner Platz, Berlin. His plays have been translated into over 30 languages and performed both in Germany and abroad. FIREFACE, THE UGLY ONE, MOVING TARGETS are three of his works that I have seen in Sydney. PERPLEX seems to me a break through and arresting work. Attention, perhaps, should be paid to this one. If you love the theatre - don't miss this production.
18 months ago I visited Berlin for the first time and made a point to visit the Schaubhne Theatre, it, having had such an inordinate influence, I feel, on some of the direction of some of the recent work we have experienced here is Sydney: Benedict Andrews, Simon Stone, others, and clearly Sarah Giles, are some of the Directors affected, and who have had a particular interest in the contemporary German repertoire. Mr Von Mayenburg's latest original work, MARTYRER (Martyred) was about to be presented (December, 2012). I, however, lacking German language, selected from their enormous weekly repertoire to see Gorky's SUMMERFOLK, knowing it well, having directed it twice - still, at just over three hours, with no sub- or sur-titiles, a challenge (there was a beautiful, trained Labrador dog that galumphed around the stage for most of that time to keep me occupied, if, I sometimes became bewildered as to what was happening, elsewhere, with Gorky's play.) MARTYRER, also, like the original production of PERPLEX, directed by the author, was forgone.
PERPLEX, set in a contemporary, sparely decorated apartment (Set Design by Renee Mulder) begins with Glenn (Glenn Hazeldine) and Andrea (Andrea Demetriades) returning home from a vacation to discover that their apartment has taken on subtle re-adjustments, which cause judgements of error, leading to little accidents: knocked shins, bruised legs, falls and injured hops, for them, to be then, further, knocked side-ways psychologically, in their perceptual reality, when the couple who had been temporarily caring for the apartment, Rebecca (Rebecca Massey) and Tim (Tim Walter), claim the place as their's! That is just the beginning. Subsequently, each of the participants 'morph' into many other characters, relationships and realities, e.g. at a costume party (I think) with the theme of "Nordic Nights", we meet a multi-partner sexual adventurer in the guise of a skier; a Norse woman complete with Wagnerian horns, a blonde wig and vicious club; a walking-talking live volcano; and an elk, who all interact, converse, and sometimes philosophise. The company, or one of them, at least, talk to us, (are we there?), later a wall falls down revealing the back stage mechanisms, and finally we discover, while the cast members swig a beer, that this whole event, this play in that reality, has had no director. Plato,Kierkegaard, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, Nietzsche (he even appears in a terrible beard, up a ladder) and, probably, another 'truckload' of thinkers (of, both life and theatre theories!) are construed into the text and present a smorgasbord of ideas, ideas, ideas, that man, in general, has been wrestling with, Man, indeed, exhaustively, for some time has, as we, too, as an audience at the STC, of late, in related form have been cogitating and digesting: Botho Strauss and GROSS UND KLEIN, Samuel Beckett and WAITING FOR GODOT; Jean Genet and THE MAIDS, Tom Stoppard and ROSENCRATZ AND GUILDERNSTERN ARE DEAD.
"What the f**k am I watching?" one may well ask.
Perplex, is defined in the Macquarie dictionary as: "cause to be puzzled over what is not understood or certain; to bewilder, confuse mentally." Mr Von Mayenburg's play sure does that, but what is delightful, is that this play has theatrical wit, philosophical intelligence, daring and elan, that does not allow boredom, even resistance, for the open-minded (open-hearted). Yes, élan. For goodness sake one of the actors is stark naked for long sections of the play, whilst, in one instance, discussing Darwin, having just discovered the theory of Natural Selection whilst in the shower, and after the initial shock (adjustment) of the almost in-yer-face nudity (for some, literally), one, intellectually, captures the joke, and takes it into one's stride, with sunny and flattered good humour. I couldn't help but think back, while watching, to Sir Robert Helpmann discussing the difficulty of choreographing a ballet for the naked body - not all the body parts will obey command, he opined! Here, the dramatic tension, dynamic, between the swinging body parts and the intellectual 'babble' was stimulating indeed. FUN. Anything goes, this playwright's strategy signalled, and is just another little piece of grist for the comic intellectual mill - cast your memory back to a similar audacity in the Tom Stoppard JUMPERS (1972), with his Dorothy in full swing above the action! Remember? Different sex on show, but similar ploy.
Arriving in Berlin for the first time in December, 2012, I was lugging, as my plane read, Peter Watson's THE GERMAN GENIUS and the Twentieth Century - "an encyclopaedic survey in which every German artist or thinker, (from the beginning of the 19th century) and many who should be more famous than they are, finds a place" (TLS). It was an illuminating and thrilling, relatively easy read - highly recommended. Maybe, with PERPLEXED, Mr Von Mayenburg has subsumed enough of this awesome inheritance to begin to take his place as a writer of some arrest. Certainly, in my experience of his other plays, PERPLEX is a great leap forward in form and content daring. (I wished I now had elected to 'wrestle' with MARTYRER.) One, of course, must compliment the translation by Maja Zade for the deftness of the English writing (she is responsible for many of the English speaking versions of German contemporary theatre - e.g. Roland Schimmelpfennig (THE PIGEONS), and Falk Richter (UNDER ICE).
The company of actors are a supportive ensemble, an absolute necessity in the hurly-burly of the hi-jinx of this scenario. Their inter-dependence on each other's reliability is much more essential than usual - they are, all, keenly attuned to each other. It is interesting to read that Mr Von Mayenburg is regarded by some in Germany as an 'old fashioned' writer. By that, it is meant that he, generally, writes in a fairly naturalistic mode (FIREFACE). In this production by Ms Giles, it is the work from Mr Hazeldine and Ms Demetriades that seems to strike most consistently the mode of performance style required - one that is absolutely real, no matter the surreal/absurd circumstances of the writing. The tension between the two styles, one of the acting (naturalistic), against the other, the writing (surreal-absurdist), makes the play tick-tock smoothly. Mr Walter and Ms Massey tended, early, to give the impression of having made a stylistic choice of 'weird' or 'abstracted' comment, layering the circumstances of the writing, with their spoken vocal tonalities, with an extra, and in my opinion, unnecessary stylistic edge - slightly pointing to a 'tonality' of didacticism.
A little while ago, watching Martin Crimp's play - a writer with a similar contemporary daring and cultural observational skill: IN THE REPUBLIC OF HAPPINESS, at the Royal Court in London, the brutal critique of our contemporary world was written in a darkly absurdist style, but the acting was directed and played in an absolute reality. There was no 'gilding of the lily' from the actors to heighten the savageness or the absurdities of the writing. The contrast between the recognisable characters doing 'real' things, in this case celebrating Christmas at lunch, eating real food, drinking real drink, to the outrageously 'brutal' content of the conversation, made for a powerful dramatic punch wrapped in delightfully wicked comedy. If, all four of the PERPLEX actors were real together, always, this production of PERPLEX, may have been perfect. As it is, it is, still, a very exciting night out.
Mr Hazeldine is as usual, a standout, he plays at what I call 150% and it pays off. The comic delight and moving pathos, for instance, of his character's reflection over the rejection by the elk as his future partner, after a very rewarding sexual interlude, is a treasure of acting, at its best, to savour. Ms Demetriades, too, demonstrates with her astute and subtly lethal sense of the world about her, her taut intelligence, presented with and in the guise of her personal beauty, is effortless in scoring all her targets of opportunity in Mr Von Mayenburg's play - an irresistible magic charm (it is what 'saved' the STC production of PYGMALION, a little while ago, from complete disaster, in my reflective memory). Ms Massey, after, for me, a slightly edgy start, found her usual expected full comic stride, and in the final sequences of collapse and release, as the play 'literally', falls down about her, captures the grounding humanistics of what the playwright has playfully toyed with all night. Mr Walter, similarly, finds his way into the style and is charming and bold to watch in everyway!
I did not believe Mr Giles' command of MARRIAGE BLANC and its stylistic demands, presented at the STC, a little while ago, but here, with this work, she knows her 'apples.' Ms Mulder's design, especially costume, is provocative and apt; the Sound Design and Composition by Max Lyandvert is less orchestral, than of late, and I feel, very much more useful, then, to this production. The Lighting Design by Benjamin Cisterne, was not as striking as perhaps it could have been.
What PERPLEX has to say has been said before - J.B. Priestly, G.B. Shaw, Luigi Pirandello, Thornton Wilder, Sartre etc - but it is in the contemporary staging conceits that he has taken to tell us again, that makes this work worth capturing in the experiential net of your theatre going memories. I loved it. Why didn't someone urge me to get there sooner?!!! This is the first production of PERPLEX in English, and I am sure it will not be its last. Neither, in the rest of the English speaking world, or here, again, and again.
Thornton Wilder (think of his theatre works: his treasure of neglected one act plays (e.g. THE LONG CHRISTMAS DINNER; PULLMAN CAR: HIAWATHA; THE HAPPY JOURNEY), the full length plays: OUR TOWN, and especially, THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH, to see my reason for relating, relevance) captures some of the essences of some of the debates raised in my mind in the Marius Von Mayenburg PERPLEX:
Modern man has taken such pride in the exploration of his mind that he has forgotten there must be some laws governing that exploration. Whether it comes under religion or ethics or mere judgement such laws must be found and respected. Otherwise the mind leads him straight to self-destruction. 
There is no God; there is the concession of the absurdity of man's reason in a universe which can never be explained by reason; yet there is a freedom of the will defended for the first time on non-religious grounds. Baby, you'll sit up, at PERPLEX, if you are alive and curious and searching. Definitely an antidote to my melancholy brought to the fore at the recent Belvoir production of the Simon Stone inspiration from Gogol's THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR!
GO. (Unfortunately, closes this week.)
- THE GERMAN GENIUS and the Twentieth Century by Peter Watson - Simon & Schuster - 2010.
- THE IDES OF MARCH by Thornton Wilder. Perennial - an imprint of Harper Collins publishers - 1948. From the Overview by Tappan Wilder -2003.