Left – Andrea Demetriades (front), Rebecca Massey and Tim Walter (rear). Cover – Tim Walter, Andrea Demetriades, Glenn Hazeldine and Rebecca Massey. Photos – Lisa Tomasetti
You think you know who you are. You think you know who the people around you are. You think you know what you’re doing, and what’s happening. But do you? To whom are you performing this thing you call your life? And is it your life? Is it real, if no one is watching? Who is watching? Is anyone watching? Is this the world, or just a set? And what character are you playing anyway?
Welcome to the world of Perplex. This is theatre stacked on meta-theatre stacked on more meta-theatre stacked on some Nietzsche (and yes, he appears at one point. So does a Nazi. And an elk. Or do they?). It is intensely existential and preoccupied with performativity. If that sounds kind of self-indulgent… well, yes, it is. But it’s also incredibly, rib-achingly funny.
I’ve seen three productions of weird German farces directed by Sarah Giles now, and I’ve loved all of them. The absurd humour in them appeals to me greatly, although I can imagine it might not be to the taste of some. Perplex lives up to the standard Giles set with her productions for Griffin Independent of The Pigeons and The Ugly One (the former being probably the funniest play I have ever seen on stage). Giles has a deft hand. This level of absurdity would be easy to overplay, but she knows exactly where to show restraint and where to let her actors surrender to the moment’s ridiculousness.
Perplex is by Marius von Mayenburg, the same playwright as The Ugly One. It has the same fascination with theatricality: the actors’ names become the character’s names, and they have to keep affirming the existence of the fourth wall to themselves. I don’t think it’s as tidy as The Ugly One: there are moments when the meta-theatrical becomes a bit too heavy-handed. This is especially true in the second half of the play, when the play’s existentialism and Nietzschean foundation come into fuller focus. In the first half of the play, long-winded monologues were expressly prohibited (“are you doing a monologue? we said we wouldn’t do any more monologues,” Andrea Demetriades’ character remarks sternly). In the second, Perplex becomes a bit bogged down in its philosophical cleverness and the monologues about god and depth and the death of meaning run unchecked. It pays off at the end, but the play loses some of its pace.
I could say a lot about the philosophical underpinnings of this play, particularly its treatment of religion, but let’s face it – that would be boring, and it would make the play sound boring, when it’s not. It is hysterically funny. And it is not afraid to make fun of itself – it is completely self-conscious of itself and its Germanness. I don’t normally have a lot of patience for the meta-theatrical, and sometimes Perplex does get over-absorbed with its own cleverness, but Sarah Giles really knows what she is doing with this kind of theatre. If you’re prepared to deal with a whole lot of weirdness, then Perplex is the show for you. Give yourself to the elk.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
by Marius von Mayenburg | translated by Maja Zade
Director Sarah Giles
Venue: Wharf 1 | Pier 4, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Dates: 31 March – 3 May 2014
Tickets: $30 – $65
Bookings: 02 9250 1777 | sydneytheatre.com.au