Thursday, April 10, 2014

Perplex by Marius von Mayenburg

Perplex by Marius von Mayenburg, translated by Maja Zade.  Sydney Theatre Company, directed by Sarah Giles at Wharf 1,  April 4 – May 3, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 9

The theatrical form of Perplex is metacognitive farce.  The philosophical form is farcical metacognition.  If it had been written by Shakespeare, Hamlet would have been named Piglet, and his question would have been “To be, or not to be.  What is the question?”

If you feel perplexed so far, that’s great.  It’s also very funny – not what I’ve written, but what Marius von Mayenburg wrote, as translated wonderfully by Maja Zade.  If you thought philosophy was beyond your comprehension (that’s the meta-cognitive bit), you need never worry again.  Just Give Yourself to the Elk physically (you’ll be laughing with all your might) and intellectually, as you begin to understand that the universe really is absolutely unpredictable.  Not only does God, or any god, not exist, but – since everything we know consists of no more than a bunch of electrical pulses in our brains – even we don’t really exist.  Nor does the ‘fourth wall’ of stage performance.  Nor even the play itself, whose director has never shown up to rehearsal “since the beginning”.

It’s at this point, of course, that I go into analysis mode.  That’s what a critic has to do, otherwise I wouldn’t be a critic.

Should you see this play?  Absolutely, categorically and metacognitively.  To see the whole audience making their exit from the auditorium bubbling with excitement, laughing and babbling away (even at afternoon teatime on Wednesday) is proof Sarah Giles is still on top of the form she showed when directing Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession last year.

As for the cast, well, they come up to the mark brilliantly: Andrea Demetriades as Andrea, Glenn Hazeldine as Glenn, Rebecca Massey as Rebecca, and the occasionally nude Tim Walter as Tim.  As do the essential ‘creatives’: designer Renée  Mulder, lighting designer Benjamin Cisterne, and composer & sound designer Max Lyandvert.  If you ever dare to invite people to a ‘Come as...’ party, you could not do better than ask Mulder to design the costumes – the funniest I’ve seen on stage for many a long year.

It is true (I think, therefore I...) that some education in European theatrical tradition will make you more cognisant of some of ‘meta’ aspects of this work from Berlin. In his 30s, von Mayenburg, already with a lucky 13 plays behind him, wrote Perplex in 2010.  In only his second year of writing, according to Wikipedia, his Feuergesicht (1997) won him the Kleistförderpreis für junge Dramatiker and Preis der Frankfurter Autorenstiftung. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marius_von_Mayenburg)

By his 14th year, in play number 14, Perplex shows his confidence as he plays with the elements of absurdism, with semi-oblique references at least to Pirandello (1921), whose Six Characters are in Search of an Author, to Ionesco’s couple of strangers (Mr and Mrs Martin in The Bald Soprano 1948) who discover they not only know each other, but are actually married, to Stoppard’s Rozencrantz and Guildernstern (1966) trying to fathom out what’s going on in Hamlet and, according to Sydney Theatre Company’s blurb, to Nietzsche and Beckett.  The extra level beyond the ordinary is that von Mayenburg satirises his own place in the absurdist tradition, of which his characters are aware.  Even Pirandello’s characters knew they were in a play by Pirandello, but for von Mayenburg’s characters acting in his play is disastrous emotionally, as they realise that modern avant-garde German playwrights traditionally have to have the whole set collapse and cleared from the stage – I suppose for a neat and precisely tidy ending.

In fact, this isn’t what happens.  The stage is a mess at the end – another final twist in the logic of absurdism.  Funny though it is to watch, there really is a sense of sadness at humanity’s incapacity not only to understand our place in the universe, but even just to organise ourselves enough to maintain a little bit of equanimity in our lives.  I saw a touch of Brecht’s The Chalk Circle and The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, after the laughter had faded away.

L to R: Andrea Demetriades, Tim Walter, Rebecca Massey, Tim Walter, Glenn Hazeldine, Andrea Demetriades, Rebecca Massey, Glenn Hazeldine
Photos: Lisa Tomasetti



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