The Perfect Play for the Age of Trump?

Simon Wilson reviews Silo Theatre's end-of-year show, Perplex.

Posted on

Simon Wilson on Silo Theatre's end-of-year show, Perplex.

The set (by Daniel Williams) is a fucking awful living room, in a lineage direct from The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Luis Buñuel would totally have that set if he was alive and making the movie today. And the play also seems, to start with, like it might be a surrealist comedy of manners. But these are “manners” in, I don’t know, the age of RHOAKL? Twitter? Trump? The play opens with Natalie (Natalie Medlock) and Nic (Nic Sampson) arriving home from holiday and slipping into their normal mode of communication: unmitigated rage. It’s funny, also not.

The couple’s friends Kura (Kura Forrester) and Sam (Sam Snedden) turn up, and it soon seems we’re in some sort of mistaken-identity farce. And that’s funny too. But no. The confusion turns out to be much deeper. Characters elide from one actor to the other, or rather couples elide from one actor to… hell, what is it exactly?

Everything is what it seems until it isn’t, and that keeps on going right through the show. Which also contains Arctic fancy dress, gratuitous male nudity, drunkenness, death, and – it seems only natural, given everything else – sex with an elk. It’s a German play.

There’s also the deconstruction of the play, the production, theatre, art, life itself. Oh those Germans.

Silo Theatre’s Christmas show Perplex, by Marius von Mayenburg, would be bullshit if it wasn’t funny, but it is. It really is. All four actors are clever comedians, blessed with lovely timing and committed to physical stupidity, always clearly enjoying themselves and drawing us warmly into their enjoyment. You look at Sampson’s face and think, he’s barely doing anything, but he’s got you in stitches. You look at Forrester’s face and, well, it’s basically made of rubber.

You look at Snedden’s body – you have to, it’s on show for quite long stretches – and it gets you thinking. It’s ordinary, I don’t think he’d mind my saying that; but also, somehow, it’s hilarious. The inherent comedy of the naked, non-superhero human form. It’s just funny because it has all the ingredients to be sexy except that it isn’t. Not here on stage. I’m sure it’s different in the bedroom. And it’s funny because it’s transgressive.

It’s also, as I said, gratuitous. If it was a naked woman that would be obvious immediately, but because it’s not it makes a political point. And yet that nudity isn’t more necessary than any of the other totally nonsensical things that happen, so: gratuitous. In absurdism, everything is gratuitous, and also not. That’s what this play is like.

Sampson, by the way, on a simpler level, has the funniest routine of the night, an extended attempt to pick skis and ski poles off the floor. Anyone who’s ever tried to do it will know his pain, only probably not so much. As for Medlock, almost deranged in her fury for much of the play, she makes that very funny too. Director Sophie Roberts has done well to keep them all going, funny right to the end.

Is funny enough? The playwright doesn’t seem to think so. There’s serious intent here. What is art? What is life? What are people? What do we want from each other? Why is it all so hard? Etc. Being absurdism, the ideas implode on each other and don’t reach for specially coherent explanations.

But it’s not random. You sense a rigidly disciplined approach – nothing’s there just because it’s funny, and everything leads to something else, even if nothing actually adds up like it should. But really, what is the playwright’s intent? It has to be something, doesn’t it? Sure, this is the dilemma of the avant-garde artist. What do you do when nothing is original, including that observation? Nothing is shocking, or almost nothing. There are no new ideas, no new forms or techniques, and even the dilemma itself is not new.

And yet, the artist knows that needs must. Artists gotta do art. Audiences gotta go to stuff. If it feels like we’re all still waiting for Godot, well, yes, how did you not understand that we always will be? So, we try to stop the irony from consuming us and we try to be good at what we do, and we entertain ourselves while we wait. That’s what this play’s about. I think, and the production serves that idea very well.

Maybe it’s the perfect play for the Age of Trump. Either because do-your-head-in absurdism feels bracingly helpful, or because what else is there to do but laugh? If you’re up for either, check it out.

Silo Theatre’s Perplex
is at the Herald Theatre, Auckland
10 November - 3 December
Tickets through Ticketmaster

Images: Andi Crown Photography