In trying to explain the premise behind German playwright Marius von Mayenburg’s recently translated work, actor Tim Walter proves that it’s called Perplex for a reason. “It’s kind of hard to put your finger on. It starts off … in a living room and slowly the reality of these characters disintegrates and the assumptions they make about the world they live in are wrong.”
If you were thinking the concept sounds rather abstract, you’d be right. The further Walter explains, the further away from the typical theatre experience he moves. “The play disintegrates so much that it ends up exploring questions of what it means to be human. It examines these great philosophical, existential questions where if you strip back all the social games and roles that people play in their life, what do you have left? Are we just mammals on a rock at the end of the day?”
All this perplexing existentialism starts with a seemingly mundane premise – a couple, returning to their flat after a holiday. There’s a bizarre smell in the place, the electricity seems to have been cut off, the plants look bafflingly different and their friends who were supposed to be flat sitting are acting odd. “You think the friends are just going to return the keys…but it turns out that it’s their flat as well,” explains Walter. “Slowly but surely their friends’ reality of this thing, their flat, overrides the first couple’s understanding that this is their flat and eventually they get kicked out. The reality has shifted around the characters.”
Perplex premiered in Berlin in 2010 at the famed SchaubЯhne theatre. Marius von Mayenburg has been writer in residence there since the beginning of prolific director Thomas Ostermeier’s artistic directorship in 2000. His earlier work, The Ugly One, was performed in Sydney in 2011 and, under the direction of Sarah Giles (also the director of the current work), received the 2011 Sydney Theatre Award for Best Director of an Independent Production.
Apparently the premise for the current work came to von Mayenburg when he was on vacation in Spain; inspiration struck when the playwright suffered a nightmare surrounding the isolation and irritation that he commonly felt when coming back from holidays. I ask Walter if he can personally relate to this experience. “Absolutely, that feeling of being in a foreign place and being alone and isolated and coming back from the holiday, back to the familiar world and not feeling like you quite belong.”
This sense of disorientation is pushed to the limit here as the four main characters evolve into a patchwork of different versions of themselves. “Glenn Hazeldine plays an eight year old version of himself and has a tantrum on stage,” Walter says. “At one point Andrea and I are Glenn’s parents, at another point I’m married to Rebecca. There’s even a moment where I’m Friedrich Nietzsch,” he chuckles. “It’s quite a kaleidoscope.”
While it’s not the easiest work to get your head around, Walter’s enthusiasm for the concept is infectious. But even he struggles with how much to give away in drumming up public interest. “Some of my friends have been asking me about it and I’ve been a bit torn as to how much to say because I want to tell them all about it but at the same time I want them to come to the theatre and be surprised by all the changes. So I’ve been having to keep a few things in my hat.”
Perplex is on from Monday March 31 to Saturday May 3 at Sydney Theatre Company, Walsh Bay.