Review: Perplex (Sydney Theatre Company)

phpwU61WAPMVenue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Mar 31 – May 3, 2014
Playwright: Marius von Mayenburg (translated by Maja Zade)
Director: Sarah Giles
Actors: Andrea Demetriades, Glenn Hazeldine, Rebecca Massey, Tim Walter
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review (originally published at
Life is what you make of it, and in Perplex, life is a comedy no matter what shape our circumstances may take. Marius von Mayenburg’s script is a mischievous existentialist meditation on middle class life, and a work that uses the stage as a laboratory to examine wide ranging beliefs about the nature of being human 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. Things have to make sense, and Perplex exposes our ravenous need for logic in both life and narratives, to be farcical. There are no real characters in the play, only actors who use their own names, playing 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 contexts, the actors attempt to portray basically the same selves. This elasticity of being brings into question the constitution of personal identities, and the congruity of fate and destiny.

This is a very funny show. Its absurdity allows for performances to stretch as far as the players’ abilities can reach, and fortunately, this is a cast of great talent and gumption. Andrea Demetriades brings with her a sense of the everyday person. She looks and feels like the person next door, without an overbearing star quality or flamboyant theatricality. Her presence is strong, but she sets herself apart with an ability to portray ordinariness, which sits perfectly with the show’s attempt at dissecting our daily realities. Demetriades’ sense of humour is understated but effective. She works consciously with her flashier cast members, often creating counterbalances to ensure that the jokes translate well.

Perplex‘s surrealness is not outlandish but it is thorough and insistent. Rebecca Massey embodies this quality strongest. Her creation is consistently bizarre, but always hidden just under the skin. She juxtaposes normalcy with its opposite, almost in deception. It is this simultaneous duality that gives her creation an enigmatic intrigue. Her characterisations are also the most fluid and unfettered, which makes 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 is the mouthpiece for Charles Darwin, Friedrich 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 that may give excessive gravity to any of the big ideas it may conjure. Everything must reveal its shortfalls and temporalness. Walter’s commitment and focus is commendable. He is clearly an actor in control, with an excellent understanding of the economy of movement, which reaps maximum results with minimal (but well considered) effort.

On hand to provide all 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 tastes, but when deftly executed, it becomes disconcertingly amusing. Hazeldine knows how to create laughter, but more to the point, he understands emotions. A highlight of his performance comes after an exceptionally unorthodox sex scene when the entire theatre is in dizzying heights of fitful hilarity. Hazeldine dissolves from mania to depression before our eyes, while we have yet to catch our breath. His tears are flowing even before our laughter has subsided.

It must be noted that this an ensemble of impressive unity. The balance they achieve in supporting each other’s strengths, and the incredible comfort at which they encompass different personal approaches to humour, are the reasons for the production’s success at enthralling its audience, especially considering the lack of, or perhaps “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 true and central essence of the scripts ideas and themes.

The show ends with a song, sung in the style of Kurt Weill. It is a tribute and acknowledgement of course, 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 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 governments, but it is nonetheless entirely about our social selves. Sydney Theatre Company’s take on the “epic theatre” might just be applauded by Brecht in heaven, even if God is dead.