For a man running a theatre company whose guiding principle is to make “theatre out of control”, Duncan Maurice is surprisingly calm and assured. Perhaps one would have to be when in charge of cultivating the kind of chaos for which Mongrel Mouth shows are known, where audience members roam freely, shaping the action to their desire.
As a young company, it’s a risky dynamic to attempt, but Maurice is emphatic that this wrestling with form is what’s needed in the Aussie scene. “I see the proscenium arch-style theatre as quite autocratic, in that you’re told where to sit, you’re told where to look,” he says. “I think it’s a very dominating art form for its audience. I’m interested in shifting that relationship – so what if we let the audience do whatever they want, whenever they want? You can’t just hit your audience over the head continually with questions, you’ve gotta give them some delight.”
This anarchic form is core to Mongrel Mouth’s third show, Like Me – a roaming work set in an asylum that is populated by clownish versions of the I Generation’s greatest narcissists. Maurice links the form to our habit of surfing the net.
“It’s not a static journey; you don’t just sit on one page and stay there and read to the end. You hyperlink all over the place, and that’s the kind of theatre we make. You literally can hyperlink at any time you want from any room to any room, and for me that’s just more fulfilling.
“I don’t know how we do it!” he admits with a laugh. “I just think somehow, we do it. It’s a lot of work… for the last show we had eight rooms going at once; that’s over eight hours of theatre condensed into one hour.”
Add to that the intense physicality of their chosen performance style – in this case, the French clowning tradition of bouffon – and you have one exhausting show for the cast.
“It’s able to deal with such complex social issues but through this idea of play,” Maurice says of bouffon. “It’s almost the perfect irony that the bouffon clown is so savvy but so naïve at the same time. For me, that’s a really interesting dramatic conflict or dichotomy to explore.”
Of course, Maurice doesn’t want the show to be a moralistic scolding of any kind. “It’s just fun, it’s just madness, and I think so often as artists we take ourselves so seriously – and of course at Mongrel Mouth we take what we do seriously – but we also need to enjoy the process,” he says.
“I don’t want it to come across as, ‘It’s really heavy and dark and you’re gonna come and be lectured by three left-wing artists’ – it’s not that at all. You know, I think all really good comedy allows us to take a step, take a breath, have a laugh at the world and refresh.”
Much of the comedy stems from audience interaction and its inherent dangers. Maurice has a slew of anecdotes from when the relationship between performer and audience has dramatically changed.
“On the last show there were two big toy, red, glittery guns in the final scene, and it was basically up to the audience whether certain people should live or die,” he says. “And we had audience members break the guns – it was great!” he laughs.
“When they’re that involved, it’s exciting. You don’t know where you’re necessarily heading, but you’re all on the train together, so it’s OK. It’s a whole new level of flying by the seat of your pants, I guess.”
Like Me runs Thursday June 18 – Saturday July 11 at Merchants House in The Rocks.