Review: Perplex, Sydney Theatre Company

A couple return home to their apartment from a holiday and realise that something isn’t right. It’s smelly, the electricity has been cut off, there’s a strange pot plant in the kitchen and there’s an unopened parcel on the coffee table. Have they walked into their own apartment? And if they haven’t, where are they?

Simply, Perplex is two hours of befuddlement and uncertainty. It is a production built on fluidity of numerous dramaturgical possibilities: a narrative that has no real direction and actors who continuously assume each other’s roles. The only elements that seem to link each scene is the production’s innate social and philosophical critique, and the apartment in which the action takes place. For an audience that is only familiar with traditional linear narratives, Perplex would be extremely challenging.

Perplex comes to STC.
Perplex comes to STC.

The play is reminiscent of Marius von Mayenburg’s recent The Ugly One, written with a comedic, absurdist, but deeply thoughtful style. The English translation (Maja Zade) is well crafted with the humour and themes of existentialism and reality remaining pertinent to an Australian audience.

While much of the play is rather confusing, it becomes clear that Perplex serves as a device that proposes life has no purpose or meaning. It is a deeply disturbing idea. Amongst this, the audience is challenged with dilemmas of society, sexuality and evolution. Ultimately, the entire premise of reality becomes unstable, both within the play and the audience’s own lives.

The four actors have the opportunity to express a variety of performance styles that clearly challenge their ability and comfort threshold. Perhaps there is some overacting, but generally the quartet delivers with finesse. With their particularly arresting presence, Andrea Demetriades and Rebecca Massey stand at the fore. Perhaps this is due to the nature of the characters they play, or perhaps it is the actors’ more effective delivery.

Given the complexities of the dialogue, Renee Mulder’s design was suitably simplistic. There is more to the set though, with the design fully realised in the harsh deconstruction of the final scenes. Similarly, Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting design only showed any real creativity during the inexplicable musical number that closes the show. For the most part, the design was natural and practical (for example, when an actor flicks a switch, the lights turn on), but given the narrative’s scenic nature, lighting could have been more effectively utilised to indicate transitions and change.

A note in the program warned of strong language and nudity, and there was an excess of both. While the prolonged nudity aligned with discussions of Darwinism, its only purpose was to make the audience squirm and to draw cheap laughs. It’s perhaps a little disappointing because the intellectualism of the text seems to warrant a more sophisticated approach.

As the set is deconstructed in the final scenes and the actors relinquish their roles, the momentary reality of the theatre is eliminated.

Finally the audience gasps with relief and comprehension. They realise that enjoyment can be found in viewing Perplex at its simplest level: a metatheatrical experience in which Mayenburg explores the notion of theatre itself. But it is more than that. As Mayenburg writes in the program notes, “who knows when the show is over? All the world’s a stage”.

Ben Nielsen

Ben Nielsen is an Adelaide based writer. He has contributed to a variety of publications including artsHub, Dandy Magazine, and the Adelaide* magazine.

Ben Nielsen

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